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New Solution for the Old City?

Inter Press Service

As the 43rd anniversary of the “reunification” of Jerusalem is observed this week in Israel, marking Israel’s annexation of the eastern portion of the city, a new initiative that calls for a sustainable and unified solution for the historic city is generating a buzz in Washington.

Proposed by a group of academics, former Canadian ambassadors and government officials, the Jerusalem Old City Initiative calls for a practical, sustainable solution to the governance of Jerusalem’s ancient epicentre.

Jerusalem, and its status in any final peace agreement, is one of the fundamental issues that stands at the seemingly intractable centre of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and it has become fundamental to the debate in recent years.

Recognising both the centrality and the emotionally charged challenges of the Jerusalem issue, this proposal is the result of seven years of careful research, collaboration and discussion with many of the stakeholders in the peace process. It made its Washington debut last week at an event hosted by the Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Institute.

The Old City Initiative is unique in that it meticulously addresses and outlines not just a theoretical solution to governance of Jerusalem, but the actual implementation and sustainability of the proposed plan.

By acknowledging that their plan addresses only one, though integral, component in the complex conflict, the initiative’s authors also imagine how it fits into the larger peace process.

As Israeli attorney Daniel Seideman said at the Washington event, this initiative won’t solve the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but it could “radically transform the conflict”. Seideman lives in Jerusalem and is the founder and director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO.

The cornerstone of the proposal is a “special regime” that would have autonomous control of the ancient walled city that encompasses some of the world’s most revered religious sites.

Unlike previous proposals, like the 2000 Clinton Parameters or the often-heralded 2003 Geneva Accords that provided complex formulas for dividing Jerusalem, this proposal offers a mechanism for keeping the core of the city unified, and governed separately from neighbourhoods that radiate outward and are usually demarcated as either Israeli or Palestinian.

“With overlapping claims, systemic distrust, multiple stakeholders, deep religious divides and the impracticability of physical division, we believe options splitting Old City governance are problematic,” the report explains.

The mechanism for unified governance that is proposed is two-tiered. A chief administrator would lead the day-to-day operation of the Old City and would be an “experienced and internationally respected individual who is neither Israeli nor Palestinian”.

The second tier of the regime would be a governance board that would appoint the chief administrator and to which the administrator would be accountable. The Old City board would be made up of senior representatives of both Israeli and Palestinian governments, as well as representatives of other countries as defined by the two parties.

The Initiative, largely funded by the Canadian government, has been working quietly on the margins of the debate over a Middle East peace plan for almost a decade. However, the latest proposal, and last week’s event in Washington, could not have been more timely or central to the current state of the conflict.

The proposal debuted in the same week that saw the start of U.S.-brokered indirect, or proximity, talks between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

The talks would end an 18-month standoff in negotiations between the two parties. They are as the president of Middle East Institute, Wendy Chamberlain, told a large audience last week, “not the direct talks that we all hoped for”. She did concede that they represent a significant step forward though, as, “Special envoy Mitchell will be dealing with parties who are still very far apart.”

One of the most significant signs of the chasm that separates the two parties, currently using Special Envoy George Mitchell as a messenger between Jerusalem and Ramallah, is conditions in Jerusalem.

The situation is “careening out of control in Jerusalem”, said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer at the Washington event last week.

“It is not accidental that every altercation between the [Barack] Obama administration and Netanyahu has been over the Jerusalem issue,” Kurtzer told the audience in an opulent hotel ballroom. “The conflict is being reduced to its volcanic core, this is the arena of choice for all spoilers.”

This week has already seen such spoilers elbow their way back into the debate. Thursday, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that Israel would never stop construction in East Jerusalem, the section of the city that Palestinians want for the capital of their hoped-for future state.

The building of Israeli-only housing in East Jerusalem has been the underlying cause of continued friction between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government, and resulted in months of delay in restarting indirect talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded a total freeze on settlement building in the West Bank before he would return to negotiations.

Though Israel has declared no such freeze on building, Abbas has backed away from his demands, in part because of guarantees by the U.S. administration that final status issues like Jerusalem would be a part of negotiations. Additionally, no new building has taken place in East Jerusalem since U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to the city in March.

However, the proposal offered by the Jerusalem Old City Initiative doesn’t directly take on issues like the building of Israeli settlements in the eastern suburbs of the city. It focuses its sights solely on the historic centre of Jerusalem, ignoring the other volatile issues that lie at the heart of the dispute, like the Gaza Strip, the role of Hamas, and land swaps.

Yet its single-minded focus might also be this proposal’s strength. With the idea of a “special regime”, the authors of the Initiative allow that agreement on Jerusalem’s sovereignty is not likely in the foreseeable future, yet a sustainable solution to the governance of the Old City is integral to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

It represents a building block in a peace process that is once again trying to establish a foundation.

Ellen Massey writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). 

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