Jerusalem needs a creative solution

Eventually Israel will figure it out: a new arrangement is needed in Jerusalem. As things stand, let’s just say the city does not bring out the best in people. The current round of unrest in the city reminds us of it yet again.

Let’s look at the rogue’s gallery of players on the field.

For starters, the Palestinian rioters and the criminals who dispatch them to Jerusalem are not OK. They are either foolish enough to believe lies about Jewish plots to desecrate the al-Aqsa or evil enough to seek civil war using the mosque as an excuse.

Second, the fanaticism in Palestinian society about al-Aqsa is not OK. Otherwise rational people seem willing to die for this pile of stones amid reveries about prophets ascending to heaven from this one site and none other. Sure, the Jews have their own Temple Mount lunatics with their sacrificial lambs, but it is not the same: the overwhelming majority is not this way.

The Palestinians have legitimate grievances against Israel — and how! — but I invite them to cool their jets about the Haram-a-Sharif. If the security situation prevents access here and there, it is usually of their own making. And if pray they absolutely must, this can be done from home or from any other mosque. Islam is the religion of peace? Fine. Then it probably doesn’t want people dying for al-Aqsa.

Next up, Palestinian politicians from the Palestinian Authority and Israel Arab scene are not OK. They know very well that Israel is not planning to destroy al-Aqsa and that there is no Islamic injunction against Jews praying on the Temple Mount. They should calm their people down instead of encouraging them with fiery speeches.

Israel’s Arab allies are also not OK. They have taken great risks in making peace with Israel, and they are anyway police states that can afford to slightly upset public opinion. There is no reason to jump on the bandwagon as Jordan did in criticizing Israel, suggesting it is responsible for some escalation, and appearing to side with the throwers of stones. It is a laughable pretense. These leaders are intelligent people and they know the truth. Their people can handle the truth.

The Israeli extreme right wing is certainly not OK. They are far smarter that the regular Israeli right which does not understand that the status quo cannot last. The extreme right understands the impossibility of continued occupation under existing demographic realities, and their solution is to compel an Armageddon in which Israel expels the Arabs. They have no morality, of course: these are religious fanatic. But they also have no concerns for the consequences because in their twisted worldview whatever happens was willed by God will fix it. I have news for them: a thousand Gods cannot fix the damage caused by a fanatic.

The Israeli government is not OK for treating these people with kid gloves. It should also not allow police commanders to make ill-advised local decisions that risk sparking mayhem — like preventing youth gatherings at the Damascus Gate. In every such move the prime minister should be involved. Israel should understand that Jerusalem is a tinderbox where you should be wise as opposed to right. One false move can spark a war with Gaza, rockets on Tel Aviv, rioting and lynchings on Israel’s streets and countless lost lives; that is exactly what happened a year ago this month.

You know who is OK? The Turks. No, not today’s grotesque government in Ankara. I’m talking about the 16th century Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who gave us the massive walls of stone that to this day fully surround and in effect define the Old City of Jerusalem. They are incredibly useful still.

Israel needs separation from the Palestinians to survive. Its electorate is divided into people who either don’t understand this (the right) and those who do and seek partition. The latter group usually supports partition of Jerusalem as well, into two capitals for the two resultant states. I never thought this would work — not even in the 1990s when peace seemed less of a fantasy. It was clear that there would always been terrorists on both sides — mostly but not only on the Palestinian side — seeking to undermine any accommodation. Israel and Palestine will need a hard border.

In Berlin the division was political (with rather straight lines) and ethnic hatreds were not an issue; the natural outcome was reunification. In Nicosia the division, while unhappy, is at least clean: the north is mostly ethnic Turkish at this point and the south is Greek and there is a serious border that is not implausibly twisting. In Belfast the walls — dubbed “peace lines” — were not contiguous, seen as a blight, and are being taken down.

And what of Jerusalem? Can anyone seriously imagine border crossings in every alleyway along a barrier twisting between neighbors like an epileptic snake? I’ve seen inventive proposals involving bridges and tunnels and innovative notions about multilayered sovereignty. None enjoys the look of something that can last. Well-meaning peace fabulists cannot change physics or human nature. Israeli voters sense this, and it is not contributing to the worthy cause of peace.

Luckily we have the walls, which set apart the Old City, which is actually the heart of the problem. It is as a Levantine Vatican waiting to be declared as such.

I propose giving the religiously radioactive Old City a special administration with its very own police. I would offer an official role for anyone crazy enough to want it: from Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the United Nations and Morocco to Israel and the Palestinians themselves, with the original Vatican thrown in.

It would be best to roll back Israel’s post-1967 annexation, but only within the walls. Israel would be able to send its own police in when necessary — but not too often would be best. Palestinians would be able to enter through the Ramallah and Bethlehem crossings after a security check with guaranteed safe passage. Whoever riots would lose that right for five years, or maybe fifty.

Officially the Old City would no longer be in Israel, but it would be surrounded by Israel exactly as Rome surrounds the Vatican. Vatican City is not in Rome, but actually it kind of is.

This carries a security cost, yes. But it would yield enormous benefits as well.

It would be electric in the Arab world, where people seek a just solution for the Palestinians but are not wedded to their every maximalist demand. This would be especially true if Israel did initiated such a change out of generosity or foresight, not with its back to the wall. It could also jump-start or be part of a deal with the Palestinians that is not necessarily final but still moves the needle and finally gives them their state.

Yes, it would be hard for many Israeli Jews to accept even a symbolic renunciation of sovereignty over the holy sites. The nationalist and religious right would be ready to burn down the house rather than share it. The pragmatic side of Israel is weak-willed and weaker-kneed. That’s the main argument against this sort of proposal — it’s not politically realistic.

But if realism is the issue, the past days’ events show us once again: it is not realistic to think the current situation forever can go on. It will eventually blow up in a manner so big that original ideas will be required. If not this one, them something else.

Is it not better to initiate in time? It would be, for once, both wise and also right.



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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.