RESIDENTS of Jerusalem call it ``magic hour.'' It is the period just before twilight when the still bright Mediterranean sun has gone into repose behind the western hills. The air is perfectly transparent, without smog or vapors of humidity. The city appears a brilliant diorama, its objects lighted from within. A strong mountain breeze lends a shimmering quality to the vista, colors seeming to dance off the buildings and holy places -- gold from the Dome of the Rock, silver from the Al Aqsa mosque, a faint rose hue from the Jerusalem stone used in nearly all construction. Jerusalem would be an experience intense enough for resident, tourist, and pilgrim even were politics alien to the scene. It is not. Nor was it at the birth of our era when Jesus came over the Mount of Olives to celebrate Passover in the holy city.
It was a time of simmering resistance to Rome, a distant power that had established its regional capital in Caesarea.
Senior Roman officials came to Jerusalem principally to ``show the flag,'' collect taxes, and mete out justice, the latter bringing procurator Pontius Pilate to the city the week Jesus was sentenced to die.
The insult of Roman rule was felt most acutely by Jews during the Passover week, when they celebrated the deliverance from Egypt. Some scholars today theorize that the crowd that greeted Jesus with cries of ``Hosanna'' was beseeching him to fight for the country's independence from Rome. Palm branches strewn in his path have been found on ancient Hebrew coins and may well have been a symbol of Jewish nationalism. The psalms of degrees chanted by the crowd speak of harsh retribution against the pagan enemies of Zion. Once inside the temple, the verses may well have been left for the children to recite, adults knowing well that the proceedings were within earshot of the adjacent Antonia Castle and its Roman legions.
Jesus would not be stampeded or tricked into a recklessly futile challenge to Roman authority. His immediate targets were the corruption and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. While descending from the Mount of Olives he wept, overcome by the vision of the destruction of the Second Temple, an event that would follow his own crucifixion by some 37 years.
In nearly 2,000 years of subsequent rule by Romans, Arabs, crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, and Britons, Jerusalem never approached the majesty and importance enjoyed before Jesus' day.
To the followers of Islam it ranked behind Mecca and Medina in spiritual significance and far behind Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus in political consequence.
Jerusalem was too far inland for the crusaders to hold. During the four centuries before 1916, it was little more than a corrupt, dirty, underpopulated backwater of the Ottoman Empire.
The British governed the city as part of a League of Nations Palestine mandate in trust for beneficiaries whose antagonistic interests they found incapable of reconciliation. The British quit the country in 1948, when Israel's existence as an independent nation was established. Israel wound up dividing Jerusalem with Transjordan (now Jordan) along armistice lines that would prove unsatisfactory to all concerned.
Jordan governed Jerusalem along with the rest of the West Bank for the next 19 years. Its rule perfectly mirrored its priorities, which were, first, the ascendency of Amman and the East Bank; second, the subordination if not eradication of a separate Palestinian identity -- at least among Palestinians living under Jordanian occupation; and third, a continued state of belligerency with Israel. The Jewish section of the old city was burned. Jewish holy places were defiled. Jews were forbidden to enter the Temple Mount or even visit the Western Wall of the destroyed Second Temple.
Reconquered by Israel in 1967, Jerusalem has thrived in a way unique in recent millenniums. The population of some 300,000 -- more than one-third Arab -- is the largest ever. The holy places of all are protected and accessible. It is a clean, well-serviced, culturally and historically rich, intellectually vibrant, dynamic, and diverse municipality which, despite its modest size, can justifiably be numbered among the world's great capitals.
Jerusalem is intimately identified with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Yet only Israel couples this with a political attachment of singular and special intensity. Israel cannot deny Jerusalem to humanity, but neither can humanity deny Jerusalem to Israel. Even among strident Palestinian nationalists there is scant sentiment for bisecting the city in the onerous pre-1967 fashion.
Yet, in contemplating the future Arab-Israeli peace process, most serious students urge that the question of Jerusalem's final status be left for last. Hardheaded political realism undergirds this approach. No Israeli government that begins negotiations with major concessions on Jerusalem is likely to survive long enough to reach a final accord. Nor will a final accord that fails to provide juridical sanction for historical Arab attachments to the city achieve even threshold legitimacy among the most moderate of Arab factions.
Once the psychological hurdles of peace, mutual recognition, and territorial compromise are cleared -- not to mention such imperative questions as security, sovereignty, and citizenship -- reasonable arrangements for Jerusalem should not be impossible to come by.
Some suggest that a special status for Christian and Muslim holy places -- plus corridors providing access to them -- would suffice.
Others flirt with such notions as broad grants of extraterritoriality -- the doctrine applied to foreign embassies -- or even some form of joint sovereignty and administration, or a borough system providing its functional equivalent.
One need not at this point reach too deeply into the kit of remedies. What has blocked the implementation of any one of them has been the inability or unwillingness of the parties to the dispute to tackle the broader policy issues of the Arab-Israeli question.
History at its best provides lessons and inspiration, not shackles for the future. A traveler wandering today through the Alsace-Lorraine country would scarcely dream of the intensity of Franco-German enmity that in less than three-quarters of a century produced three bloody wars, two of which involved all of the world's great powers, the last threatening civilization itself.
An observer today standing on the Mount of Olives sees an undifferentiated panorama reflecting the episodic preeminence of man's more noble traits -- his spirituality, his love of beauty, his ability to live in harmony with the natural environment, indeed celebrating and enriching that environment even while satisfying the needs of his civilization.
And the observer hopes he is peering into man's future as well as his past.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.