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Home > Issue 22: Democratic Formation in Palestine Periodic Report (7) >

Jerusalem: Can Negotiations Produce a Mutually Acceptable Outcome?

by William B. Quandt

University of Virginia

June 1999

Conventional wisdom holds that the issues involving Jerusalem will prove to be the most difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve in final status negotiations. Those who make this assertion seem to base it on the assumption that Jerusalem, because of its special religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, is invested with particularly strong emotions by all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While I would not deny that Jerusalem will confront negotiators with particularly complex problems, I am neither convinced that it will be the most intractable of the final-status issues, nor the most emotion-laden. In fact, I think that Jerusalem is part and parcel of an extremely complex set of issues that touch on all the major facets of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Jerusalem involves sensitive issues of sovereignty, security, border deliniations, holy places, citizenship, settlements, and identity.

If these issues can be resolved for the other parts of the West Bank and Gaza, then I would expect that solutions will be found in Jerusalem as well. If these issues are not solved for the other territories, there is no chance that they will be solved in Jerusalem separately from an overall agreement.

Jerusalem in the Context of a Comprehensive Agreement

Pessimists have asserted that the special difficulties of dealing with Jerusalem condemn the entire peace process to failure. Neither side, it is said, will ever sign a final peace without an agreement on Jerusalem that meets their requirements, and those requirements are mutually incompatible. Thus, no matter how much progress may be made on individual issues, Jerusalem will always lurk like a submerged iceberg ready to sink the ship of diplomacy.

A less pessimistic view has held that Jerusalem will indeed pose formidable challenges to negotiators, and that common sense suggests trying to resolve other issues first. Then, as part of an overall package of agreements, tradeoffs involving Jerusalem may be possible. But almost no one wants to start with Jerusalem as the first issue in the final-status negotiations. My own view is that creative negotiators should be able to tackle the Jerusalem issues as part of a package deal, but I think it is almost impossible to describe the details of such an agreement in the absence of having a sense for what the overall Israeli-Palestinian peace is going to look like. Once again, I would argue that Jerusalem does not stand alone, nor can it be negotiated in isolation from other issues of a comprehensive settlement.

Opening Positions and the Nature of Negotiations

At this stage we have a better idea of what the parties say they cannot accept then what they might eventually be able to tolerate. This is fairly typical of early days of pre-negotiating. We hear from Israelis that a united Jerusalem must be the eternal capital of Israel; and we hear from Palestinians that east Jerusalem, at least, must be the capital of their independent state. Before taking these statements as the final word on the matter, remember all the previous statements that have been swept aside by the reality of negotiations: the three nos of Khartoum in 1967, the refusal to give up Sharm al-Shaykh, the refusal to accept the principle of withdrawal from Golan, the refusal to deal with the Zionist entity, the refusal to talk to the PLO, and on and on. This is not to say that positions are infinitely flexible and that politicians never mean what they say, but it does suggest that public rhetoric is not always a good guide to what may be ultimately acceptable in negotiations.

The difference between public stances and negotiated outcomes reminds us that politics plays a part in how each side presents positions in public and in diplomatic channels. It is safe to say that on issues such as Jerusalem there are hardliners and softliners on each side of the conflict. Public stances are designed, at least in part, to ensure that hardliners are given no pretext to mobilize prematurely against the concessions that inevitably form part of any negotiating process. What this means is that the actual negotiating process will have two distinct dimensions, one in which the parties deal with one another, and the other in which the negotiate with their own domestic opponents. This so-called two-level game is common in international relations, especially when pluralistic polities deal with one another, but it does add another complicating factor.

Some Conditions for Successful Negotiations

Having acknowledged that the negotiations on Jerusalem will be complex and difficult, I want to reiterate that I do not think they are hopeless. But if these negotiations are to succeed, they will have to be guided by several considerations.

--Talks on Jerusalem will have to be embedded in the broader negotiation of the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

--Secrecy must be maintained during the negotiations, which means that only a very few people, in addition to the leaders on both sides, can be involved.

--Creative framing of the issues will be needed.

--Unilateral acts that prejudice the outcome of the negotiations “ such as building new settlements and expropriating land or changing the borders of the city “ must be ended.

--At crucial moments, help from the United States as a mediator may be needed.

Areas of Agreement

If we look a bit beyond the surface of the obvious differences between Israelis and Palestinians over the future of Jerusalem, we can notice a number of points of convergence or near-convergence. For example, I do not think there is great controversy over the following points.

-- Jerusalem will be on the agenda of final-status negotiations.

--Religious sites in the city deserve special status, whatever the eventual political arrangements. Each religious community should have unimpeded access to its holy sites.

--The Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the city have a different political status from Israeli citizens and can vote in elections for the Palestinian authority. They also have a degree of autonomy with respect to education and cultural issues.

--There should be no physical barriers dividing the city.

--Israelis can tolerate a Palestinian political (and even security) presence in east Jerusalem, provided that it is relatively discreet.

--The city is, in fact, politically divided into several recognizable communities, which suggests the need for a degree of decentralization in administration under any arrangements.

-- Jerusalem, as an urban political space, has flexible boundaries. They can be expanded or contracted to suit political purposes.  

--Under Israeli administration, the Palestinian Arab population of east Jerusalem has not been treated equally compared to Israeli Jews.

Is a Mediator Needed

Most successful Arab-Israeli negotiations have involved a mediator, usually the United States. But the Oslo Accords showed that other mediators might substitute for the United States, and subsequent negotiations made progress without any mediators at all. Still, there is at least some reason to believe that the difficulty of the final-status talks, and the degree of American involvement in the diplomatic process, will mean that one side or the other will want the United States to get involved at some point.

Surprisingly, President Bill Clinton is widely viewed by Israelis and at least some Palestinians as a friend. He may, therefore, have enough credibility to play some part in getting the negotiating process underway. But his time is running out as his term comes to an end and his closest political allies, his Vice President and his wife, gear up for political campaigns where they will not want to be embarrassed by Clinton commenting publicly on sensitive issues such as Jerusalem. So, I would not expect too much out of the Clinton administration in its waning months.

The U.S. Position on Jerusalem

Still, it is worth reviewing the formal American position on Jerusalem, since it does carry some weight in the international arena and it is not identical with the views of either Israel or the Palestinian authority. (I should add that this formal position is rarely mentioned these days. Instead, administration spokesmen tend to say that it is up to the parties to resolve the issue of Jerusalem through negotiations once the final-status talks get underway.)

--The United States endorsed the idea of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum by voting for UN Resolution 181 and has never formally adopted any other position. This does not mean that the United States wants to go back to the UN plan, but it does mean that no other legal status for Jerusalem has yet been recognized. It is for this reason that the United States has not yet moved its embassy to Jerusalem. It is usually assumed that a final peace between Israel and the Palestinians will resolve the question of the city s legal status, at which time the United States will recognize the new reality. But to take a position prior to negotiations would prejudice the outcome of negotiations.

--The United States maintains a Consulate in Jerusalem which deals with issues involving Israelis and Palestinians in the city, as well as relations with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis have been uncomfortable with this arrangement over the years, but have acquiesced to it.

--The United States has said that Jerusalem should not be physically divided.

--The United States, in the Camp David Accords, reaffirmed its view from the late 1960s that east Jerusalem should be considered occupied territory, subject to the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1949, and its final status should be resolved in future negotiations. President Bush spoke openly of east Jerusalem as occupied territory where Israel should cease building settlements. Clinton has not used any similar formulation.

--American aid should not be used by Israel beyond the green line (1949 armistice line); in practice, a small amount was deducted from the loan guarantees to reflect expenditures by Israel on settlement activity in east Jerusalem.

--In recent years, there has been little sign of creative thinking about Jerusalem in official Washington. The issue is viewed as extremely sensitive, and in any case it is up to the parties to find solutions, not for the United States to try to impose its views.

--Over time, the American position on Jerusalem has evolved toward de facto acceptance of the Israeli claim that Jerusalem is its capital; the U.S. ambassador now regularly meets with Israeli officials in Jerusalem (which was not the case before 1967); and the American ambassador now has a second residence rented in west Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the formal American stance on Jerusalem has not changed.

The Need for Creative Ideas

Because the issues involving Jerusalem range from the highly practical to the largely symbolic, negotiators will have to come up with creative combinations of tradeoffs if mutually acceptable agreements are to be found. Israeli settlement activity around Jerusalem has made it difficult to design a territorial arrangement that will satisfy Palestinian, since east Jerusalem now has a substantial Israeli population. (See Figure B). The recent addition of Maale Adumim to the Jerusalem municipality, if carried through, will further complicate matters. (See Figure C)

The closest negotiators have come to tackling these issues with a measure of creativity can be seen in the so-called Beilin-Abu Mazin discussions. As part of an overall agreement, Jerusalem was to be expanded geographically and a portion of it would serve as the site of the capital of the Palestinian state. (See Figure D for a map of Greater Jerusalem) The issue of sovereignty would be left is suspense for a period of time, but the two main national communities in Jerusalem would essentially run their own affairs. Obviously, this sketchy outline left many questions unanswered, such as the Figure D: Greater

locus of ultimate sovereignty, and the precise lines on the map that would delineate one zone from another. But the concept of expanding Jerusalem and complexifying the notion of sovereignty was a step in the right direction. If one could imagine a municipal structure with many levels of authority “ from the so-called borough concept for running local affairs, to an overarching joint municipal council for other purposes “ then the question of who owned Jerusalem might simply not matter so much.

In the end, the Palestinian Arabs will be concerned with a number of concrete issues. What will be the status of the Arab quarters of the old city and the adjoining Arab neighborhoods; how will these areas be related to the rest of the West Bank Who will decide on housing permits and land development in the Arab areas Will Israeli settlement in Arab areas come to a halt And will Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza be allowed free access to Arab Jerusalem. In addition, there will be the issue of political symbols “ Arab Jerusalem as the capital of a state, the right to display one s national symbols, control over holy places, and so forth. But the symbolic issues cannot be dealt with apart from the more practical issues of how matters of governance and security will be handled.

Legal experts will have to figure out how to design a judicial system that allows

each community to run its own affairs to a large degree, and also provides for special courts to deal with cases that involve both Israelis and Palestinians. Security will also be a challenging problem, since ultimately one party will have the upper hand and, given the realities of power, that is likely to be the Israelis. But the political arrangement should be such that Palestinians and Israelis police themselves to a maximum degree, with some joint security units established to deal with those particularly sensitive issues where the interests of the two communities overlap. Some experience with such arrangements has presumably been gained in the running of zone B areas under Oslo. With a strong political commitment to make this work, it can be done. But there are obviously many risks of friction stemming from such nuanced understandings.


Jerusalem will be an immense challenge to negotiators, but need not be a fatal stumbling block. It can, however, only be dealt with as part of an overall comprehensive settlement that brings peace to both Israelis and Palestinians. Short of that, the conflict will go one. Negotiations should begin as soon as possible, in secret, with very few people other than the principal decisionmakers involved. Whatever compromises are eventually reached will have to be presented as part of a package that brings real peace.

Neither side to the negotiations can expect to get everything it wants “ that is simply a fact of life in negotiations of this sort. It is also the case that the outcome of negotiations will reflect the realities of power and facts on the ground. To a large degree, those points suggest that Israel will get much of what they want, since they are the stronger party. But peace cannot result from a diktat, so Israel too will have to make concessions. While the United states cannot be expected to play a very major role in the negotiations on Jerusalem, there is nothing in its formal position that is prejudicial to the interests of either side and at the right moment it may be able to help shape compromise outcomes if both parties so desire.

If and when an agreement is reached, it will, of course, be attacked by hardliners on both sides. Here is where the international community can help by throwing its weight behind the agreement and helping, with tangible means, to make the Palestinian state that will emerge from any future peace agreement not only viable but prosperous. I do not believe that peace can be bought, but I do think that if peace is to be preserved ordinary people must feel that their lives are improving. That will require aid and investment, so that both Israelis and Palestinians can build peaceful relations between the two claimants to the holy land and to Jerusalem, the capital of their two states.

See Amir S. Cheshin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem (Harvard, 1999) for details. They note, p. 25, that Palestinians make up 28 percent of the city s population but received between 2 and 12 percent of the budget in the various city departments.

See William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 Brookings, 1994) for details.

William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Brookings, 1986), p. 252.

James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989-1992 (Putnam, 1995, p. 128.

Source: ATF Shuun Tanmawyyeh Issue 22

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