“Without resolution of Jerusalem, peace could not be achieved,” said Michael Bell regarding the city’s importance to any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Wednesday at the Center for American Progress.
Bell served as the Canadian Ambassador to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel and was part of the event’s panel on the status of Jerusalem. The panel was moderated by Daniel C. Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham professor in Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and also included Marshall Breger, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. The two panelists discussed the obstacles to reaching a lasting resolution on Jerusalem. Rudy deLeon, CAP’s Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy, gave introductory remarks. He pointed out the timeliness of the event.
“It’s fitting that we should be here discussing Jerusalem at the same time President Obama is visiting Riyadh and Cairo as part of his effort to bring a new urgency to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and to begin a new chapter on U.S. relations with the Muslim world,” said DeLeon.
Jerusalem “encompasses all aspects of the conflict,” according to Bell. The old city is home to less than 40,000 Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and is a microcosm of the larger problems in the region. Its competing ethnic, religious, and cultural claims are central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and those claims are the reason why the city is essential to any workable peace plan.
The Temple Mount’s Western Wall is the most sacred place of Jewish worship, and the al-Haram al-Sharif, where Muslims believe that Mohammad ascended into the heavens, is the third holiest site in Islam. Breger dismissed the claims of those who challenge Islam’s connection to the site.
“I think the argument that [Jerusalem] is not holy to Islam is a silly one,” he said. “You have to accept a religion’s definition of what is holy.”
The panelists discussed ways to work within both religions’ connection to the site rather than debating the merits of those claims. Three “issues of holiness” need to be resolved for any peace plan to work, according to Breger. They include ownership of the territory and holy sites, exclusive access to the sites, and sovereignty.
The panelists agreed that more needs to be done to solve those three issues, and Bell was concerned by the lack of progress on a workable plan for the city.
“For all that is written about Jerusalem, and all the detail and its history, and claims and counterclaims, there really was precious little—in fact nothing—done on how to resolve the issue in a way that would meet the requirements of all parties,” Bell said.
Bell is co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative, which published a study last year on what would be required to reach a resolution for the city to which all parties could agree. The study concluded that as part of a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, Israel and the future Palestinian state could establish a “special regime” that would charge a third-party international administrator with managing the Old City.
According to Bell, the regime would not be responsible for resolving competing claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem or its holy sites. Instead, it would be charged by both sides with administering the space. Critically, it would be charged with securing visitation of Jerusalem’s holy sites by locals, tourists, and pilgrims.
Joint visitation and use of the city is not unprecedented, according to Breger. “Historically, there are many examples of Muslims and Jews sharing holy sites,” he said.
Kurtzer added that there are many barriers when it comes to the Old City, and that broaching some of them, for instance discussing the extension of a settlement freeze to Jerusalem, would make it easier to have serious negotiations.
No one knows when an agreement for sharing the city and its holy sites might be reached, but Wednesday’s panel helped to answer the overarching question that Kurtzer posed.
“To what extent will Jerusalem be an impediment to even the beginning of talks?” he asked the panelists.
The consensus of the panelists was that it would be a significant challenge. They both agreed that the city is too important to leave as an afterthought, and that therefore providing possible approaches that might appeal to both sides could make resolution of the conflict easier.
For more on this event please visit the events page.
See also: Middle East Progress