Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

A house with two owners

By Abdel-Azim Hammad

Abdel-Azim HammadDespite the unanimous position on Jerusalem adopted by the Israeli government and Israel's political parties across the spectrum, and despite the law recently passed by the Knesset to this effect, many American Jews and certain enlightened Israelis firmly believe that sole Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is not a solution. Israel is attempting to impose unilaterally a fait accompli that Palestinians, Arabs, the international community and even the US reject on the grounds that it was not an arrangement reached by negotiations or conciliatory means.

One of the most notable suggestions in this respect is that made by John Whitbeck, an expert in international law who is extremely well-versed in matters pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict (see Whitbeck's article, page 7). Whitbeck proposes that the city in its entirety with its eastern (Palestinian) and western (Israeli) sectors be placed under joint and undivided sovereignty. "Undivided" here refers to the sovereignty, not the city. The project has been widely acclaimed by the Jewish American peace lobby, headed by M Segal, a researcher at the Centre for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. The lobby's efforts resulted in a statement signed by 34 Jewish American rabbis last February, in support of joint Palestinian-Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Among the signatories of the statement are well-known American Jews and include reformists as well as conservatives. Whitbeck's proposal and the statement signed by Jewish religious teachers appeared in the spring issue of Middle East Politics.

Arab reactions to the project for converting Jerusalem into a condominium under dual Palestinian-Israeli sovereignty and to the statement issued by the Jewish American peace lobby have been varied.

Whitbeck and the rabbis who sanctioned the statement in favour of joint sovereignty over Jerusalem buttress their thesis with several arguments.

It is a truism that there can be no peace unless a settlement is found that is acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians -- in other words, to Jews, Christians and Muslims -- alike. Israel's insistence on placing both east and west Jerusalem under its sole sovereignty is unacceptable, yet Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the eastern side are rejected by Israel. While Israel will not concede to the division of the city, the Palestinians will not relinquish their claim. The entire world, including the United States and the United Nations, refuses to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

It should be noted that Israel was prompted to seek a peace settlement with the Palestinians on the understanding that a Palestinian state would eventually be established. Israel fears that one day it will find itself with a large number of non-Jews inside its borders, a development that would alter the composition of its population, and distort its essential character as a "Jewish state." Jerusalem alone is home to 180,000 Palestinians, and the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. There are more Palestinians living in Jerusalem than in any other city in the West Bank and Gaza. The historical city is 90 per cent Palestinian.

In purely ideological terms, the founders of Zionism never took the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem into account. Theodor Herzl himself acknowledged that Jerusalem would be outside the territory envisaged for the Jewish state. He believed it was possible for the city not to be within any single party's jurisdiction, yet at the same time to be under the jurisdiction of all. It would remain the holy city of all three monotheistic religions, the source of their shared civilisation and spiritual life.

Israel actually accepted the principle of placing the city under international jurisdiction as provided for by the United Nations resolution for the partition of Palestine, issued in 1947. Until the 1967 June war, Israel never took any steps to transfer its capital from Tel Aviv to the western sector of Jerusalem, which it has controlled since 1948. Furthermore, the idea of placing Jerusalem, Al-Khalil (Hebron) and Beit Lahm (Bethlehem) under international jurisdiction is not new.

According to a study published in the issue of Middle East Politics mentioned above, not even Israel's extremist right-wing religious parties are calling for the construction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem on the ruins of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Only two extremist factions (not political parties) harbour such ideas. They oppose the "surrender" not only of Jerusalem, but of any territory in the West Bank, which they regard as part of historical Israel.

There are no obstacles, therefore -- nor even doctrinal objections -- to Israel relinquishing its claims to sole and absolute sovereignty over the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem. Religious parties have stated clearly that the building of the temple is not a duty the Jews are required to perform before the Messiah's coming. Still, while joint sovereignty over Jerusalem has been shown not to compromise the fundamental interests of Israel, nor violate Zionist ideology or Jewish teachings, it fulfils an essential Palestinian demand. The Palestinians are therefore likely to accept it provided no other partition of the city takes place.

The comprehensive proposal presented by Whitbeck should not be considered a personal initiative, since it has already won the backing of the Jewish American peace lobby. The project was also developed at a joint meeting held in Cairo in 1993 and attended by 24 Palestinian and Israeli researchers. The Israeli participants represented powerful research centres, and could thus claim to speak for an influential sector of public opinion.

Arab and Palestinian positions do not object to the concept of joint undivided sovereignty over Jerusalem within the context of progress in the peace process. In the momentum of the deliberations that followed the signing of the Declaration of Principles, President Mubarak stated that some formula preserving the unity of Jerusalem and guaranteeing both parties' rights to the city should be sought. The fact that Israel's official stance has developed in this direction is worth considering. Perhaps Jerusalem is too big a problem to be dealt with, and this awareness may have prompted Barak to request that an agreement be postponed for a further five years. Others feel that this is only a manoeuvre on the part of Israel. I would like to believe it is a delay after which Israel will at last begin to move in the right direction.

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