The Case for a United Jerusalem

Dividing the holy city as part of a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians ignores key realities on the ground
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Jerusalem / Reuters


Proponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often insist that the only way to resolve competing claims over the holy city of Jerusalem is to divide it, with each half respectively serving as the capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. Those who advocate this approach often try to make it more palatable by asserting, as Terrestrial Jerusalem founder Daniel Seidemann recently wrote in The Atlantic, that while many Israelis speak of Jerusalem being a "united" city since its eastern half came under Israeli sovereignty in 1967, such a perception is a "myth" because, in fact, Jerusalem is divided between largely homogeneous and internally contiguous Jewish and Arab neighborhoods across which the two groups rarely venture. Thus, they argue, a border could be drawn relatively easily along demographic lines, re-dividing the city between the two states. 

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The reality, however, is that Jerusalem today is a demographically intertwined city. To be sure, there are neighborhoods, particularly east of the security barrier, where Jews seldom venture. But modern-day Jerusalem is far more an interwoven checkerboard of Jewish and Palestinian enclaves. The Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, for example, lies between the Jewish neighborhoods of Talpiot and Gilo, while the Arab neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah lies between the Old City and the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill. Separating these neighborhoods between two countries would create an unwieldy and unsustainable border. While creative solutions have been proposed to ensure that a re-divided Jerusalem would remain interconnected, as any urban center must to thrive, experience shows that divided cities, such as Berlin and Baghdad, are fragile at best and combustible at worst. 

One significant reason against dividing Jerusalem is that many of the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem wish to remain under Israeli sovereignty. Recent polling indicates that, despite the fact that municipal resources and services have not been evenly allocated between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem segments of the city, a plurality of Palestinians residing in eastern sections of Jerusalem would move from Palestinian Jerusalem to Israeli Jerusalem, if given the opportunity, should the city be re-divided. According to one of the pollsters

For most Palestinians who said they wanted to be citizens of Israel, approximately 35 percent said it was practical issues that dominate -- freedom of movement, higher income, health insurance, job opportunities, prosperity, more shops...

People were concerned that if they became a citizen of Palestine, they had significant worries about losing employment in Israel, free movement in Israel, Israeli health care, and reduction in city services. ...
Three-quarters of east Jerusalem Arabs are at least a little concerned, and more than half are more than a little concerned, that they would lose their ability to write and speak freely if they became citizens of a Palestinian state rather than remaining under Israeli control.

But more contentious than the fate of Jerusalem's residential neighborhoods is the debate over the fate of the Old City - home to Judaism's holiest sites and among Islam's holiest sites. On a practical level, dividing the Old City along demographic lines would put Jewish holy sites on the Palestinian side and Muslim holy sites on the Israeli side. Israelis are understandably cautious about putting these sites solely under Arab control; when Arabs last controlled the Old City, from 1948 to 1967, Jews were barred from access. 

To address this concern, numerous groups have proposed "special arrangements," such as international or joint Israeli-Palestinian administration over the Old City, to ensure protection of and access to these sites. But these proposals rely on international community support and enforcement to guarantee security and access, which Israel has legitimate grounds to doubt given the lackluster performance of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai (who evacuated their posts in the lead-up to the June 1967 War) and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) along Israel's northern border (who have failed in their mandate to prevent the re-arming of Hezbollah).  Furthermore, the international community has consistently shown little regard for the Jewish attachment to holy sites, most recently seen in UNESCO's 2010 declaration that the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron is "an integral part of the Palestinian territories."

An additional problem with "special arrangement" proposals is that they tend to require more intimate and extensive cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians rather than granting the "divorce" from one another that both sides seem to be seeking through a peace deal. And this cooperation must succeed in the most sensitive of all locations.  

Unlike these untested proposals, Israel has proven over the past four decades that its authority over all of Jerusalem can ensure protection of and access to holy sites. Since Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, pilgrims of all faiths have generally been allowed to visit the holy places of all religions. Muslim mosques, even those built atop the mount where Judaism's Holy Temple once stood, operate relatively freely - and under Islamic religious oversight. While some might contest that Israel does periodically place security restrictions upon entrance to holy sites, free access is the default policy under Israeli rule. 

But resolving the status of the Old City of Jerusalem is not just about geography nor about the practicalities of access to a single site; it is deeply intertwined with questions of national identity, history, and theology. Proposals for joint sovereignty, deferred sovereignty, or even divine sovereignty ignore the deep-rooted significance of the holy city. The search for a "split the difference" compromise also ignores the fact that the Old City of Jerusalem has been the national capital of the Jewish people for the past 3000 years and is Judaism's holiest site, while it is Mecca that plays that role for Muslims. The international community would never expect the Islamic world to cede sovereignty over Mecca; the Jewish people ought to be accorded no less respect with regard to the Old City of Jerusalem.

One reason peace in the Middle East has not yet been possible is because most efforts to achieve it have been aspirational but untethered from reality. It is clear that re-dividing Jerusalem is neither feasible nor prudent. The international community must take off the table the option of dividing Jerusalem, in the same way that they have ended the debate over a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees. A sustainable peace can only be achieved with the entirety of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.


Editor's Note: This article was corrected to refer to the United Nations Emergency Force, not the Multinational Force and Observer.
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Nathan Diament is the executive director for public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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