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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Decision Making and Negotiation

Looking for answers: How Trump’s Jerusalem decision is forcing a search for creative solutions

It is an axiom of Middle Eastern politics—if a slightly simplistic one—that Jerusalem lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its status as a sacred place in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam makes it deeply significant to both Palestinians and Israelis. The American decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital has further clouded its already contested future. As Israeli control over Jerusalem crystallizes, the likelihood that the city can act as the capital of future Israeli and Palestinian states recedes rapidly. Increasingly, peacemakers and politicians are being forced to consider more creative solutions—and many are looking to the past for inspiration.

“Trump’s move brings to a full circle the history of Israel’s progressive encirclement of the city since the 1967 war and its aftermath,” explains Professor Salim Tamari, Director of the Institute for Palestine Studies, speaking at the Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in February. Following that war, which resulted in Israel occupying all of Jerusalem, Israeli governments have constructed a geographic architecture sanctioned by Israeli law that has increasingly solidified their control over the city while systematically diminishing the presence of Palestinians. Through a series of boundary redefinitions, demographic engineering policies, construction projects like the notorious separation wall, and the creation of a differential system of rights for Jewish and non-Jewish residents, Israel has successfully cemented its control over the city it officially considers its eternal and undivided capital.

Many observers view Trump’s move as the culmination of the slide towards Israeli domination of Jerusalem. Tamari contends that the President’s intervention has finally put to rest any lingering pretence that the Holy City will figure in the peace process. Instead, Trump has expressly asserted that Jerusalem is now “off the table” in ongoing negotiations, with only the precise borders of Israel’s capital to be worked out at some later point. Such a move is a decisive—and perhaps irreversible—departure from the framework for the resolution of the city’s status set out in the Oslo Accords. Under this series of agreements signed in the mid-1990s, Jerusalem was designated a “final status issue”, to be resolved through a decisive peace settlement at the end of a five-year interim period. The Palestinians hoped to claim at least the eastern portion of the city as the capital of their own future state. Of course, no such political settlement has been reached, and the issue of Jerusalem has floated without satisfactory resolution. With the US declaration, however, its constant deferral seems to have been rendered permanent.

But those who refuse to accept exclusive Israeli control of the entire city are now considering a range of alternative options. One idea, says Tamari, is the resurrection of an element of the plan endorsed in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, the 1947 decision confirming the partition plan that lead to the creation of the state of Israel the following year. Under this configuration, Jerusalem was to become a corpus separatum, an entity neither under Jewish nor Palestinian control, but instead under international authority. Administered by the UN’s Trusteeship Council, Jerusalem—both the wider metropolitan area and the highly contested Old City—was to have been demilitarized and been considered neutral territory. Representatives of the city’s population would legislate and manage taxation. It is unclear how practical such a plan would be in today’s heightened political climate—yet, the sharing of the city as envisioned by Resolution 181 could be an attractive prospect to moderates on both sides of the conflict who are weary of decades of intransigence and bitter recrimination over Jerusalem.

A second alternative would be an arrangement in which the status of Jerusalem within Israeli and Palestinian states is akin to Rome and its division between the Vatican and Italy. Under the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Holy See was accorded full sovereignty over Vatican City, while guaranteeing reciprocal open access and freedom of movement between the City and Rome to Italian and Vatican subjects. A similar status for Jerusalem was apparently mooted by Faisal Husseini, Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem Affairs under Yassar Arafat. While never carried forward, this plan also offers another possible alternative model for the future dispensation of Jerusalem.

Alternative plans notwithstanding, many observers believe that talk of settling the Jerusalem question will remain merely academic until a wider peace settlement is set in motion. Indeed, Tamari argues that until a solution for the wider Palestinian territorial dispute is achieved, the vast difference in the power of the Israelis and the Palestinians will make any just resolution of the Jerusalem issue elusive. The problem, he explains, is that these models “assume conditions of equitable parties.” Until some degree of political parity is achieved between Israelis and Palestinians, meaningful progress on Jerusalem is unlikely.

But the peace plan that appears to be the next cab on the rank is hardly encouraging in this respect. The “Ultimate Deal” laid out by President Trump’s negotiators, seemingly with the support of  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has come to the fore following the seeming failure of the post-Oslo negotiation track. Under Trump’s desired plan, a Palestinian state would be created, divided between the thin slivers of the West Bank not occupied by illegal Israeli settlements, and a Gaza Strip augmented—in a rumored suggestion whose exact logic remains somewhat mysterious—by a portion of the Sinai Peninsula to be ceded by Egypt. Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, would become the capital of the new Palestine. Israel would, presumably, retain control of the rest of Jerusalem. In its radical rejection of the parameters set by the past seven decades of negotiations, this plan could offer the jolt required to spark the peace process into life. But, quite apart from questions over feasibility, such as the viability of a geographically fractured Palestinian state and the dubious probability of Egypt ceding control over any part of the Sinai, its essential endorsement of the status quo on Jerusalem is likely to leave it completely unacceptable to most Palestinians. “There is a limit,” comments Tamari on this plan, “to how much you can segment this miserable territory before it becomes meaningless.” And, one surmises, equally meaningless would be a deal that finally extinguishes the possibility of any meaningful Palestinian role in Jerusalem.