How Jared Kushner Can Get the Mideast Deal of the Century
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Despite current tensions in Gaza, first son-in-law Jared Kushner insists that the Deal of the Century — an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — is on the way. A number of thorny disagreements would need to be resolved if that’s to happen; first and foremost, the status of Jerusalem.
This is often portrayed as an insoluble problem. I disagree. I think the city is ripe for some diplomatic disruption.
The oft-repeated slogan, “the indivisible nature of Israel’s 3,000 year-old capital,” is empty rhetoric. Any deal will necessarily divide the city between its Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.
This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Israelis may venerate the Jerusalem of the Bible and the prayer book, but they are less enamored of the Jerusalem of today. The Israeli capital is the poorest city in the country. Its residents are increasingly members of ultra-orthodox sects (37 percent of the Jewish population and growing fast), whose unwillingness to serve in the army or enter the workforce has made them very unpopular with their less pious countrymen. For years, the city has experienced a constant outflow of young Israelis put off by stringent religious blue laws and ultra-orthodox bullying.
Despite this, Israel will never give up “west” Jerusalem or the suburban neighborhoods it has built since the 1967 Six-Day War. These are facts of Israeli life that the Arabs don’t like but will grudgingly accept. Similarly, Israel will agree to the loss of the Arab villages and refugee camps that it has, since 1967, incorporated into its version of a greater Jerusalem.
Under a division plan, two separate cities could be created out of Jerusalem. They would have an open border and security arrangements like those that now exist between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Municipal government and taxation would be independent. Joint development plans would require mutual agreement.
Each city would belong to a larger national or autonomous unit: Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Arab Jerusalem as part of whatever Arab state or entity emerges from the peace deal, whose capital will be Ramallah. This lacks symmetry, but never in the history of Jerusalem has it been an Arab or Muslim capital. Its main significance is religious.
In return, Israel would make a concession of its own. The Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, Western Wall and Christian holy places, would be internationalized. Specific holy sites can be administered by the civil or denominational authorities of each side (as they are now). The current residential quarters of the walled city (Jewish, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Muslim) would remain frozen in place and population.
The Old City as a whole would be internationalized and governed by a committee of the great powers. This will be hard for Israel to accept, but it is not such a radical idea: Founding father Theodor Herzl advocated it in his Zionist diplomacy. The Arab side would find this international governance easier, if only because it would see it as a painful Israeli concession.
But not so painful as people sometimes imagine. A Tel Aviv friend only half-jokingly told me recently that she’d support a division of the city, but only if the Palestinians take the ultra-orthodox Jews with them.
For many Israelis and Arabs, the hardest part of dividing Jerusalem may be losing the battle for its magical name. But that will have to happen. Two “Jerusalems,” side by side, is an invitation to further conflict in the name of unification.
The solution is obvious: A name change. The Jewish city can be called by its Hebrew name “Yerushalayim,” as it has been by Jews for thousands of years (and is called by Israelis today). There is more than ample precedent for the name change. The European names of Israeli cities are routinely Hebraized. One example is the ancient town of “Jaffa” which is now officially known as “Yaffo” in Israel.
The Arabs also do not use the name “Jerusalem.” Since at least the 9th Century they have called the city “Al Quds,” meaning “The Holy One” and that is what they call it today.
It would take the world some time to get used to the new names. But not so long ago the capital of China was called Peking and the Indian city of Mumbai was Bombay. Leningrad became St. Petersburg without undue fuss. Even New York was once New Amsterdam. Foreigners may go on saying “Jerusalem,” but nobody in either city will fight to keep the name.
The two-city compromise is, of course, more easily described than achieved. Leaders on both sides will have to swallow compromises and convince their followers that there is no choice. Israel has resisted for years suggestions that Jerusalem be divided. It will take pressure from the Trump administration and its main negotiator, Jared Kushner, to get past that. It is a lot to ask, but if you want the deal of the century, you have to break a few icons along the way.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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