THE period between the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan in late February and the beginning of Passover and the Easter season in early April has seen some of the most serious challenges to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since its inception in 1993.
Terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere in Israel by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas have claimed more than 60 lives. Understandably, Prime Minister Shimon Peres has closed the borders with the Gaza Strip and West Bank, imposing economic hardship on thousands of Palestinians.
In the midst of a heated election campaign between Mr. Peres and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Israelis across the political spectrum debate the wisdom of moving ahead with the peace process. And Yigal Amir was sentenced to life in prison for assassinating former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
In 1967, Rabin commanded Israeli troops as they captured the Old City of Jerusalem and Judaism's most holy site, the Western Wall of the 3,000-year-old Temple of Solomon. In 1995, he was assassinated for trying to bring peace to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
As Rabin was both conqueror and victim, so too is the city of Jerusalem for which he fought, negotiated, and ultimately died. Since the time of Abraham's offer to sacrifice Isaac, Jerusalem has been the apotheosis of spiritual longing and the crucible of religious intolerance. It also has been a site of persecution and plunder.
Following the Israeli election on May 29, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are scheduled to meet to discuss Jerusalem's fate and other pending permanent-status issues: Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, national borders, and military security. Underlying these issues is the central question of whether the Palestinians will move beyond self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza to establish a sovereign state, with Jerusalem as its capital.
In the wake of the Hamas bombings, any semblance of constructive dialogue on Jerusalem is hard to find. Israelis talk of Jerusalem as the country's "united and eternal capital" that must never again be divided. Palestinians point to the legacy of Jerusalem as an Arab capital for 1,300 years when they propose Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Despite the hard-line rhetoric and pre-negotiation jockeying, important shifts have been taking place in Israeli and Palestinian policymakers' thinking regarding the feasibility of long-term solutions for Jerusalem. These shifts won't become apparent until after the permanent-status negotiations, as policymakers are reluctant to move too far out in front of domestic public opinion. Yet, workable compromises are becoming evident, including concessions on issues of settlers, refugees, borders, and security.
For example, Palestinian concessions on redrawing the Green Line separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank could incorporate thousands of West Bank settlers into Israel, especially in settlements such as the Etzion bloc, Beitar, and Givat Zeev north and south of Jerusalem. Israel could enlarge Jerusalem's municipal boundary to include Palestinian districts such as Abu Dis and al-Azzaria, which have organic ties to Arab East Jerusalem. Such steps would create a more nearly equal population balance within an enlarged Jerusalem metropolitan area and facilitate East Jerusalem's integration into the West Bank.
Within Jerusalem, the separation between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem could facilitate the creation of more autonomous neighborhood councils that would take responsibility for municipal and social services, markedly improving the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Regarding Jerusalem's holy sites (epitomized for Jew, Muslim, and Christian by the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre respectively), workable arrangements are in place. For years, a Muslim caretaker has held the keys to the Holy Sepulchre, while Israeli authorities permit a Muslim Council to regulate activities on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif).
The Temple Mount also symbolizes one of two main obstacles to a Jerusalem solution - security. Muslims may regulate worship on the Haram al-Shariff, but Israeli troops retain ultimate security responsibility. For a durable Jerusalem peace, Israelis and Palestinians will have to devise cooperative security arrangements so that Jerusalem is neither a security problem nor a conduit for terrorist attacks between Israeli and Palestinian territory. The Israeli-Palestinian experience in sharing intelligence and coordinating security activities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank shows such cooperation is possible.
The other key issue is national sovereignty, i.e., Jerusalem as the potential national capital of Palestine as well as of Israel. Most Israelis define "Yerushalayim" as Jewish West Jerusalem and the Western Wall and Jewish quarter in the Old City. Palestinians conceive of "al-Quds" as Arab East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and Muslim quarter of the Old City. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion spoke of "Jewish Jerusalem ... as an integral part of the State of Israel" in defending his willingness to control only part of the city. Similar compromises should be possible today.
The complexion and character of Jerusalem have changed many times through the centuries, and they can change again. Etymologically derived from both "salaam" and "shalom," the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace, Jerusalem has a historic opportunity to conquer its past and realize its full potential. Despite the current turmoil, to miss that opportunity will condemn Jerusalem to being a victim of continued nationalist conflict, economic impoverishment, and religious intolerance.