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The solution for Jerusalem is joint rule

The most intractable of the issues preventing a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is the future of Jerusalem. It was this that provoked the breakdown of the negotiations at Camp David last month.

Now the question is whether another round of discussions can offer any better prospect of success.

Both sides have adopted such entrenched positions that it is difficult to see how either could contemplate a compromise solution. Yet there must be some form of compromise if there is ever to be real peace between them. And since the rivalry over the city is the main obstacle that must be overcome, it is important to be clear about the arguments.

The Israeli government insists that Jerusalem is the "eternal and undivided capital" of the Jewishstate. Ehud Barak, like his predecessor as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, repeats this slogan at every opportunity, so that most Israelis have come to believe it (though the outside world has not) as though it were a judgment handed down from on high.

But it remains no more than a slogan, and a moment's reflection is enough to remind us that it embodies a claim without substance, whether in terms of international law or as a simple matter of fact.

The Israelis occupied East Jerusalem, with its wholly Arab population, by force of arms in 1967, and have remained there as an occupying power ever since.

Acting unilaterally and in defiance of a series of U.N. resolutions, the Israeli government has annexed the Arab sector and established a number of racially exclusive settlements there _ all of this against the strongly expressed wishes of the indigenous population.

It would be difficult to imagine a more openly illegal position than that of the Israeli government in Jerusalem. Everything about it is contrary to international law.

Soon after the occupation began, the U.N. Security Council adopted the famous Resolution 242, whose opening clause confirmed the basic principle that "the acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible." As regards Jerusalem, the Security Council ruled unanimously (Resolution 267) that any attempt by the Israeli government to alter the status of Jerusalem would be invalid.

In other words, the prolonged occupation of East Jerusalem and its annexation, together with all the changes the Israelis imposed on the city, including the settlements they built and the colonies of Jewish settlers they planted on Arab land, all constitute defiance of specific rulings by the body that expresses the will of the international community.

And there is another weakness in the Israeli case over Jerusalem. The suggestion that the city is the "undivided" capital of Israel is easily disproved.

Take a taxi in West Jerusalem and ask the Jewish driver to take you to an address in East Jerusalem and he will refuse, even if he knows the address, which is unlikely. Apart from a small number of open-minded Israelis, the Jewish population of West Jerusalem does not visit East Jerusalem or have anything to do with it.

Whether the Israeli government likes to admit it or not, Jerusalem is divided _ and no amount of rhetoric can disguise the fact.

So the Israeli desire to retain control of East Jerusalem has nothing to do with justice or the wishes of its citizens. It is an expression of what we used to call imperialism, the desire of one people to lord it over another _ which is supposed to have gone out of the window long ago.

What then of the Palestinian side of the argument? Why do the Palestinians believe they have the right to exercise sovereignty over East Jerusalem?

If you were to ask those of them who live there, they would answer "because it is our home." And if you went on to ask Palestinians who live in Israel and the occupied territories or in refugee camps in the countries round about, they would say "because Jerusalem has been the focal point of our homeland for a thousand years." And that, in simple human terms, ought surely to be enough.

But besides this natural and easily understood feeling, the Palestinians have on their side two supporting arguments.

First, they ask only for what is theirs. They make no claim on territory inhabited by others _ even though what is now Jewish West Jerusalem consists largely of property seized in 1948 from its Arab owners.

Second, they have the backing of international law, as expressed in those U.N. resolutions and in the various conventions designed to govern relations between peoples and to protect the rights of the weak against the powerful.

So what conclusion can one suggest to a dispute where the balance of power is so uneven?

Thirty years ago, wrestling with the same problem, I wrote that if the Israelis insisted on keeping control of the Old City of Jerusalem, peace would be out of anyone's reach. The same is true today.

But I added then (and this is also true today) that there was "an alternative which the Israelis might be wise to consider before it is too late. This is not withdrawal, which would divide the city once again; not internationalization, which has little appeal for either side; but a condominium, which would be the starting point for a wider experiment in coexistence and which would preserve the unity of the city, but with no victors and no vanquished, no masters and no second-class citizens, no angry clash of eager but ill-considered ambitions. And that might indeed be the New Jerusalem."

+ Michael Adams is a research fellow in the politics department of Exeter University and a former Middle East correspondent of the Guardian. +

The Guardian