Interview with Lt. Col. (Res.) Ron Shatzberg Project Director, Economic Cooperation Foundation.
Can you explain the challenge Jerusalem poses to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The ethos of Jerusalem as a whole is a challenge but the Historical Basin, comprised of the Old City and a surrounding area of 2.4 square kilometers, is the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The significance of the Basin to both sides only grew with time to the extent that it now includes not only the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall but also the City of David and the Mount of Olives. The issue of the Holy Basin is not only complicated due to the difficulties of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to compromise on but also because other players–Saudi Arabia, the Arab League, the Supreme Muslim Council, members of the Jewish Diaspora and the Christian establishment–feel that they are also stakeholders in the story. If we solve this issue, we’ll be able to jump ahead in the peace process.
Both sides, however, feel that it is impossible at this point to reach an agreement over the Basin. In that regard, it is useful to make a distinction between a management agreement and a sovereignty agreement. The Historical Basin needs to be managed and, in fact, even today there is modus operandi that keeps the place running. Improvements are needed but believers of all three religions have access to their respective holy sites. On the sovereignty issue I think it is currently impossible to reach an agreement. The challenge is to come up with an agreement that would appeal to the peoples of both sides so that they will be willing to put aside the issue of sovereignty and focus on functional management agreement.
What are the specific issues pertaining to the Historical Basin?
In general, three principle issues revolve around the Historical Basin. First, the Basin should remain a ‘bubble’ within Jerusalem. Even if/when the city is divided, probably more or less according to the Clinton parameters with the Jewish neighborhoods belonging to Israel and the Arab neighborhoods to the future Palestinian capital, the Historical Basin should not be physically divided and passage in and out of the basin should not require a visa.
Second, a functional agreement over the Holy Basin would also have to include administrative aspects such as law and order enforcement, zoning and planning, etcetera. There are a few alternative approaches but the best in my opinion is to have each state accountable for its own public. There are currently 40,000 people residing in the Basin, 35,000 of which are Arab and 5,000 are Jewish..
Third is the sovereignty issue. It is probably more productive to agree on functional issues and postpone the issue of sovereignty to the future. The problem however is that sovereignty also affects functional aspects.
How can the Palestinians agree to postpone the issue when Israel is the sovereign?
There needs to be a way to define Israel’s sovereignty over the Basin as temporary with an opening to further discussions on the issue. We need to assure the Palestinians that by signing such an agreement the temporary situation would not turn into a permanent one. In my view, dividing the city and establishing the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem could be a strong of enough incentive for them to agree to such an arrangement.
People need to understand: we already know that a divided city with a special regime in the Historical Basin could work functionally. It is mostly a symbolic issue. Therefore, Jerusalem has to be dealt with as part of a comprehensive peace package. Breaking the package into the different core issues and analyzing them separately might cause grievances to many. The idea is to sell both publics a package, the advantages of which outweigh the disadvantages. Therefore it is also wrong in my opinion to separate the territorial issue from the Jerusalem one in the negotiations. Indeed, the issue of Jerusalem involves many aspects; one of the major ones however is territory.
What will be the security challenges of a divided Jerusalem with a special regime in the Historical Basin?
This desired situation poses a complex security challenge. First, there is no precedent to a border route that runs inside an urban area. The proximity of Jewish neighborhoods to Arab one makes the situation even more intricate than in the area of the Gaza Strip.
Second, even today before we’ve reached an agreement, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Historical Basin on holidays. Those figures will only grow after with a peace agreement especially because Muslims from all over the world will want to visit the holy places. To face this challenge it is useful to think of expanding internal and external security and intelligence circles. Assuming that Muslims will cross to Jerusalem through Jordan – and only later on through a Palestinian airport - the first external intelligence and security circle will monitor who comes in and out of Jordan. The second will guard the crossings on the Jordan River. The third will be in charge of security inside the Palestinian state and only the fourth in Jerusalem. That will require a trilateral security arrangement between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians and probably another international player to support the security efforts in critical places such as the crossings over the Jordan River. This player will have to be created especially for this task in a manner similar to the way the Multinational Force and Observers, was created to implement the security provisions of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula.
The better Israel feels about the external security circles, the smoother this arrangement would work. The border between Israel and the Palestinians should be a strict one with flexible permeability depending on the seriousness of the external security threats and the trust in the Palestinian security forces capabilities. In this regard, not only Jordan but countries like Turkey, Egypt and maybe even Syria in the future will also be important to creating some sort of buffer zone that would make the penetration of Al Qaida or Iran-backed terrorists more difficult. In addition, the normalization of relations between Israel and the 22 countries comprising the Arab League is bound to mitigate the external security threats in the long run by undermining the extremists who try to sabotage the chances of reaching an agreement in the first place.
Another security aspect revolves around the myth of ruling East Jerusalem as a strategic asset. Indeed, in 1967 it had strategic value especially against the conventional threat from the Eastern front—Jordan and Iraq. Today, however, we have peace with Jordan and for now, the Iraqi threat had been neutralized. Moreover, the improvements in weaponry and technology and our military capabilities make this added strategic value seem marginal and enable us to treat the Eastern threat more flexibly.
What are the other aspects of dividing Jerusalem?
There are numerous issues but I’ll focus on three: the future of East Jerusalem’s residents, transportation and Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem.
First, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, although disadvantaged compared to residents of the Western part, are still socio-economically better than Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and have rights in Israel. It would be imperative not to cut them off from the Israeli welfare state safety net once they move under Palestinian sovereignty. Such an act would bring about a dangerous slide in their economic situation. Instead of cutting them off at once, Israel will have to plan for a gradual phase out of social benefits. We need to learn the lesson of separating Abu Dis and Azariya from East Jerusalem with the barrier. The original plan was to invest in those two neighborhoods which were connected to Jerusalem since 1967 and thus help compensate for their loss of access to services, but this was never done. The disconnection from Jerusalem, the checkpoints and roadblocks through which they have to pass going to and coming back from the West bank, the crumbling infrastructure in the Eastern part of town, the wall, the skyrocketing prices of residential properties west of the wall which made families squeeze into small apartments fearing that otherwise they would lose their rights–all put immense pressure on Jerusalem’s Palestinians that eventually can lead to attacks such as the ones we witnessed recently.
Second, as to transportation and roads to and inside Jerusalem, we should address the following questions: what would be the future of road number 443 which is one of the two main roads leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and now designated for Israelis only? How to link Jerusalem to Gush Etzion assuming it will remain part of Israel as part of a peace agreement? The answers to these questions also have security implications.
Third, a primary concern for Palestinians is connectivity. They do not want a fragmented state. The issue of Ma’ale Edumim therefore is sensitive as it stretches Jerusalem eastward and seemingly divides the West Bank into northern and southern parts. In my view, this is mostly a symbolic issue because connectivity can be achieved through underpasses, overpasses, roads etcetera. What Israel should do now, in my opinion, to demonstrate to the Palestinians its commitment to a viable Palestinian state is to pave a highway– with no checkpoints or roadblocks – connecting Bethlehem and Ramallah which would run east to Ma’ale Edumim. Such an act would show that this is not a major obstacle to peace.
What are the current challenges of maintaining Jerusalem as is until an agreement is reached?
There is no enforcement of law and order in East Jerusalem and our police are the ones to blame although they do work on security issues. The police don’t care about the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and the Palestinians don’t want the Israeli police to care about them. This has led throughout the years to the creation of a no man’s land in East Jerusalem in terms of criminal law enforcement.
Another challenge is obviously security. Once the access of terrorist groups into Israel proper had been blocked by the barrier, and by the intelligence superiority that stop attacks in the planning stages, they started looking into recruiting East Jerusalemites who enter Israel freely–they live in Israel–and speak Hebrew. Historically, Jerusalem’s Palestinians have not been involved in terrorism because they had much to lose. However, the 30,000 Palestinians who moved to East Jerusalem because they didn’t want to be left out of the wall and added pressure to the failed institutions, the wall, and the movement and access issues–all created a situation in which they have less to lose now.
Aside from bridging economic gaps, investing in infrastructure etcetera, in order to address this growing security threat, Israel should change the route of the separation barrier in Jerusalem according to the same principles it did in other places–separate between Israelis and Palestinians. Now it separates between Palestinians and Palestinians.
Most of the Israeli public understands that the dream of keeping Jerusalem united is unrealistic. Following the latest terrorist attacks this realization probably grew further. However, there are right wing factors on our side that hinder such a development by building or buying properties in East Jerusalem. The municipality of Jerusalem encourages this phenomenon and the Israeli government provides security to the settlers, which is funded by the Israeli tax payer. Those sophisticated NGO’s like Elad and Atert Cohanim bring the helpless Israeli leadership to its knees.
What role do you see for the international community in solving the issue of Jerusalem?
The international community could have multiple roles: facilitate negotiations, participate in creation of a broad security framework which would make Jerusalem safer as I mentioned earlier, and maybe in the future move important international organizations such as UNESCO, to the Old City in the hopes of turning the place into a symbol of tolerance and coexistence.
The international community should also understand the role of stakeholders, other than Israelis and Palestinians, in the discussion over Jerusalem. The input of players such as the Jewish, Christian and Muslim establishments and Arab states is critical for successful negotiations over the city. If they are left out, they’ll hinder the chances of reaching an agreement.
The United States as the facilitator of the process should create a framework with its allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds–mostly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and the Supreme Muslim Council–that would support a compromise on Jerusalem. The solution is clear to all, they just need to be treated as part of the process and the U.S. can help make sure the Camp David mistake of 2000–ignoring the global importance of Jerusalem–is not repeated.