U.S. News & World Report

March 31, 1997

Breaking the bounds

Jerusalem's woe:

Too much history, too little geography


A Palestinian state does not yet exist. Nor does its capital. But Khalil Tufakji is already mapping them both. He can suggest where the parliament should sit (the Mount of Olives) and even describe the sight from its windows (the walled Old City). Envisioning that dream is his chief pastime. But his main job, as geographer for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, is to keep track of Israeli settlements. These days, his two preoccupations are becoming one.

Tufakji believes that Jewish housing projects in and around East Jerusalem are making his dream impossible. That, he says, is the Israelis' real goal in building on Har Homa, a hill where bulldozers broke ground last week for 6,500 homes amid Palestinian protests and swiftly fulfilled warnings of violence.

Israelis and Palestinians were due to begin their "final status" talks last week. Instead they fought a word war over one hill that has come to encapsulate the whole problem of Jerusalem--and to make it appear insoluble. But it isn't. At least, not yet.

Since both sides consider Jerusalem their capital, it may seem that there is no room for compromise over its 3,000-year-old real estate. But Jerusalem's borders have shifted often. If only there were goodwill, moderates on both sides believe, constructive gerrymandering might be possible again.

Except for a few radicals who still hope to drive Israel into the sea, Palestinians make no claim on overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhoods of West Jerusalem like Rehavia, Yemin Moshe, and Mea Shearim. And a University of Maryland poll of Israeli Jews finds very few with an attachment to Arab neighborhoods on the fringes of East Jerusalem such as Sur Bahir and Umm Tuba.

One area of clearly overlapping claims is the Old City, with its Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy sites. But the Old City is so precious to all three religions that both sides recognize there can be no return to the 1948-1967 period when Jordan controlled the Old City and denied Jews access to their holy sites, blew up much of the old Jewish quarter, and desecrated synagogues. Since 1967, when Israel seized the Old City in the Six-Day War, it has let Christians run the churches and Muslims control the Islamic sites.

Jerusalem's ancient features are less of a stumbling block than its modern ones--the housing complexes built by Israel on the outskirts, mainly on land taken from Arabs. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sees the city as a "living organism" that must grow. But Palestinians view the new neighborhoods as a ring cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank--and an attempt to determine the city's future before negotiations begin. While 38,000 Jewish homes have been built in East Jerusalem since 1968, new housing for Arabs has been severely restricted and the city's 48-square-mile limits tailored to keep the Jews-to-Arabs ratio at over 2 to 1. Roughly equal numbers live in the 350-square-mile greater metropolitan area, which includes the towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Tel Aviv terror. Three days after bulldozers rolled at Har Homa, a Palestinian walked onto the patio of Tel Aviv's Apropo cafe with a bag full of explosives and blew himself up. Three Israeli women died with him, and 46 people were injured. "The terror of bulldozers led to the terror of explosives," said Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu, in turn, blamed Arafat, who had recently freed from jail the head of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic group that now claims responsibility for the bombing. Netanyahu suggested he might suspend peace talks.

Reuven Merhav, a former Mossad intelligence agency official who now heads a think-tank study on Jerusalem, sees only one way out of the impasse: Both sides must stop viewing the city's future as a "zero-sum game." They should return, he says, to the spirit, if not the precise substance, of the secret talks that PLO negotiator Abu Mazen and Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin conducted when the Israeli Labor Party was in power, before Netanyahu was elected last year. The two were exploring the idea of side-by-side capitals called Jerusalem and al-Quds, the Arabic name for the city. Jerusalem would encompass the current borders, and al-Quds would stretch to the east, taking in Arab villages that are now outside the official city limits but were inside Jerusalem as defined by Jordan before 1967.

In time, Merhav says, al-Quds could develop into a sprawling metropolis with organic ties to Jerusalem, including joint provision of municipal services. But to make this possible, Israel must leave room for Palestinian construction on the eastern edge of the city.

Palestinians also envision earnest cooperation. "We must have two capitals in one open city--the Palestinian capital on the eastern side, the Israeli capital on the western side," says Faisal al-Husseini, the top Palestinian official in the city. "We must have free access between both capitals." He and other Palestinians, however, want sovereignty over the Old City and Mount Scopus, which was part of Israel even before 1967. For most Israelis, such a demand is a nonstarter. That is why, under the Beilin--Abu Mazen proposal, East Jerusalem and the Old City would remain under de facto Israeli control, but a settlement of their "permanent status" would be postponed indefinitely.

Dore Gold, Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser, does not believe compromise is possible.

Netanyahu, in his 1996 election campaign, accused the Labor Party of planning to "divide" Jerusalem--a potent charge against its candidate, ex-Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Ever since the 1948-1967 trauma, when the city's downtown was split into two armed camps with a no man's land in between, polls have shown that Israelis believe Jerusalem must never be divided again. But one question is rarely asked: What division is being talked about? Fifty-nine percent of Israelis, the University of Maryland researchers found, are willing to consider gerrymandering the city to give Palestinians sovereignty over some outlying neighborhoods as long as the integrity of Jewish sections and the holy sites is protected.

Would the Palestinians accept this? Would Tufakji give up his hopes for a parliament on the Mount of Olives in return for realizing at least in part his dream of a capital in al-Quds? The Palestinian geographer replies that people on both sides have been meeting, quietly, to explore many ideas.

Israel has prided itself on allowing all faiths access to their holy places. But Abba Eban, the Israeli elder statesman, now fears that Netanyahu's "provocative" policies, driven by domestic political pressures, could jeopardize the Jewish state's claim to remain the responsible sovereign of the city.