Jerusalem: A Flashpoint for Conflict or Microcosm of Peace?
Opinion, by Alon Ben-Meir *
May 20 2021 (IPS) – Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts
between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no
Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a
Palestinian state while the city remains united.
Righting the Wrong
The flareup that has engulfed East Jerusalem over the past
few days should surprise no one. The status quo could never be sustained; the
Palestinians’ resentment of the occupation was only deepening and any incident
could have precipitated a violent outbreak.
This time it was the order to evict six families from the
Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. For the
Palestinians, this became symptomatic of Israel’s much wider scheme of ethnic
cleansing to make more room for Jewish settlers and thereby Judaize East
Jerusalem, which Israel views as an integral part of its capital.
Israel may hold onto East Jerusalem for another 54 years,
but the Palestinians, and for that matter the Arab states, will never give up
on their claim to East Jerusalem.
While we can find temporary solutions for the current
violence, then what? A long-term solution is necessary to ensure that Jerusalem
does not continue on its path as a flashpoint city for violence. That said,
there is a way whereby both sides can live in a united city and make it a
microcosm for peaceful coexistence.
Jerusalem is unique in that both Israelis and
Palestinians—and Jews, Muslims, and Christians around the world—have a special
affinity to the city. There are four major factors that attest to the city’s uniqueness.
First, East Jerusalem houses the largest mixed Jewish-Arab
community anywhere in the world, with roughly 215,000 Israelis and 328,000
Palestinians who move freely across the city, east and west, and throughout
Second, the city’s infrastructure and services—roads,
electrical grid, communications, and maintenance—are all fully integrated, and
there is simply no way that they can be divided. In fact, neither Israel nor
the Palestinians want to physically divide the city, regardless of its final
Third, Jerusalem is home to the Jews’ holiest shrine, the
Western Wall, the third-holiest Muslim shrines, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome
of the Rock, and the holiest sites in Christianity within the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre. The fact that the Jewish and Arab holy shrines are adjacent to
one another requires them to fully collaborate on security, tourism, access to
the holy sites, and improvements.
Fourth, the main contentious issue between the two sides is
the political status of the city. Given however that under any circumstances
the city will remain united physically, and the majority of the population in
East Jerusalem are Palestinian, it is essential that the city’s administration
reflects the reality on the ground.
To truly recreate Jerusalem as a microcosm of peace, East
and West Jerusalem would be independent municipalities—East Jerusalem as the
capital of the Palestinian state and West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In addition, a joint Israeli-Palestinian council must be
established to handle any issues or services that impact the two parts of the
city, including electricity, water, certain municipal services, cross-border
crimes, and joint development projects, to name a few examples. The council
should have a clear and well-defined mandate to ensure that neither side can
infringe on the other’s separate municipal responsibilities.
In this regard, since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in
1967, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has and continues to maintain the
custodianship and the administration over the Muslim holy shrines, Haram
al-Sharif, and will continue to do so regardless of the final agreement; Israel
will maintain its control over the Western Wall.
As a part of this, a religious council encompassing Judaism,
Islam, and Christianity would be established to address various issues related
to their holy shrines.
In the final analysis, Israel will have to accept that the
Palestinians will establish their capital in East Jerusalem, while all Israeli
Jews living on the east side of the city can remain where they are. In fact,
the Trump administration’s official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s
capital clearly states that “We are not taking a position on any final status
issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in
Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to
the parties involved.”
The ongoing disturbances actually present an opportunity for
Biden to be very decisive that this violence is not something that will go away
once the immediate flareup subsides. Biden should declare definitively that
while West Jerusalem belongs to Israel and the US recognizes it as such (given
that the US Embassy is located there), East Jerusalem is not part of Israel’s
There are many Israelis, perhaps a majority, who insist that
the Palestinians’ future capital can be established in either Abu Dis or
Silwan, which would be incorporated into Greater Jerusalem. The Palestinians
will continue to reject that off-hand, especially because they have the backing
of the international community and the Arab states and in particular Saudi
Arabia. Indeed, the Saudis uphold the establishment of the Palestinian capital
in East Jerusalem as sacrosanct to the Arab world as a whole.
Those Israelis who bask in the illusion that East Jerusalem
will forever remain under Israeli control must realize that only through the
use of force can Israel maintain control and even then, frequent flareups, such
the current one, will happen and potentially escalate into a full-blown violent
The upcoming new Israeli government should view the
unfolding events in Jerusalem as the catalyst for looking somberly at long-term
Israeli-Palestinian relations. Moreover, every Israeli should remember that
under any violent conflict, the Arab states will always land on the Palestinian
side, and put an end to and possibly abrogate current diplomatic relations with
The Biden administration now has a golden opportunity to
change the dynamic of the conflict over East Jerusalem. Biden should insist
that given the history of the city, its religious symbolism and the reality on
the ground, a solution to the future of East Jerusalem could become a microcosm
of Israeli-Palestinian peaceful coexistence under the framework of a two-state
solution. Only such an outcome will usher in a comprehensive
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University
(NYU). He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle