Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Most Contested Spot on Earth?

On the same day that the current Israeli Prime Minister Olmert stated that Jerusalem will have to be divided, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel released a report outlining a plan for sharing the city. Or, to be more precise, the "old city" where the holiest sites are.

the "old city" of Jerusalem, which is quite small, is contentious because it contains some of the holiest sites in Christianity, and Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Israelis claim Jerusalem to be their eternal, undivided capital and Palestinians also have aspirations for establishing a capital there too. This plan, however, does not divide Jerusalem, it shares part of it, and in doing so, aims to satisfy everyone.

The plan calls for an international committee to govern the old city. The committee would contain Israeli and Palestinian representatives, each of whom would choose other, international officials to join the committee. The committee would administer the old city as though it were a separate municipality, with it's own police force, laws and the like.

This plan is already being rejected by Palestinians who are arguing that since all the land is rightfully theirs, they should not have to share it. It's a safe bet that many Israelis will feel similarly. Even secular Israeli Jews may feel a tug at their heartstrings to consider that the site which is at the core of their faith will not be entirely theirs to control.

There is also the question of religion, which is, after all, the reason Jerusalem is so important. Will Israelis, with their large number of different Jewish streams (Orthodox, conservative, etc.), Muslims, with their religious divisions and Christians who have broken into fistfights over their holy sites be able to find compromise?

It will be no easy task for any central Jerusalem administration to satisfy the competing claims of these religious groups and it could well be that such divisions and mistrust within the Jewish, Muslim or Christian communities will scuttle such a plan on their own. The pressures these religious groups bring to bear on the Israeli government alone are massive.

Trust will be a major factor in the success of this plan. Israeli and Palestinians cannot be expected to trust each other, at least not in the short term, and Israelis have long felt that as Jews, nobody is looking out for their interests, other than themselves. When former Palestinian leaders like Yassir Arafat (and others) have tried to cast doubt on archaeological evidence that their ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and Right wing Israeli Jews cling to their hopes of destroying the Al-Aqusa mosque and replacing in with a new Jewish temple, the deep divisions over Jerusalem become clear. Even the members of the proposed police force to be established under this plan will need to be very carefully managed to ensure that its membership and its officers are seen as impartial and fair.

Any peace plan will necessitate a solution for Jerusalem which will require some compromise over the issue of sovereignty. By allowing both parties to deny that they have relinquished sovereignty to the other side (though they will have relinquished sovereignty) and combined with excellent political salesmanship arguing that it's better to have peace and the ability to visit holy places, than eternal war, this plan has slightly better than a snowballs chance in hell. It will, however, require bold political decisions by Israelis and Palestinians and assurances that the unlucky person chosen to administer the city will have the patience of a saint, an impeccable record of trustworthiness and the wisdom of Solomon.

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