A condominium solution for a divided Jerusalem

Both Palestinians and Israelis should have sovereignty over the holy city.

There will never be a durable peace in the Middle East without a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is acceptable to most Israelis and to most Palestinians. There will also never be a lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a solution to the status of Jerusalem acceptable to most Israelis and to most Palestinians.

While it is widely assumed that no such solution exists, there is one that has a real possibility of being acceptable.

When Israelis and Palestinians speak about Jerusalem, they are not simply establishing negotiating positions. Jerusalem commands too tight a grip on hearts and minds. If one accepts that no Israeli government could ever accept a redivision of Jerusalem and that no Palestinian leadership could ever accept a permanent-status solution that gave a future Palestinian state no share of sovereignty in Jerusalem, then only one solution is conceivable: joint sovereignty over an undivided city.

In the context of a two-state solution, Jerusalem could form an undivided part of both states, constitute the capital of both states, and be administered by local district councils, to which as many aspects of municipal governance as possible would be devolved, and an umbrella municipal council, which would coordinate those major matters that can only be dealt with efficiently at a citywide level.

In the proper terminology of international law, Jerusalem would be a "condominium" of Israel and the Palestinian state.

Condominiums, while rare, are not without precedent. For half a century prior to its independence in 1956, Sudan was a condominium of Britain and Egypt. For more than 70 years, the Pacific nation of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides Condominium) was under the joint, undivided sovereignty of Britain and France. In 1999, the arbitrator appointed by the International Court of Justice ruled that the contested Bosnian municipality of Brčko should be a condominium shared by Bosnia's Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat federation.

In seeking a solution to the status of Jerusalem, it is essential to distinguish between sovereignty and municipal administration. While municipal administration involves numerous practical questions, sovereignty over Jerusalem is fundamentally a symbolic, psychological, and virtually theological question.

Assigning sovereignty over an undivided city both to Israel and to the future Palestine should satisfy to the maximum degree possible the symbolic and psychological needs of both Israelis and Palestinians. It could also generate profoundly positive benefits for the quality of "life after peace" by requiring a sharing of the city and cooperation with "the other."

There is a widespread misconception among Israelis that, under the status quo, Israel possesses sovereignty over expanded East Jerusalem. It does not. It possesses administrative control. A country can acquire administrative control by force of arms. It can acquire sovereignty only with the consent of the international community. Israel has possessed and exercised administrative control over expanded East Jerusalem for four decades. To this day, none of the world's other 194 sovereign states has recognized its claim to sovereignty. Furthermore, Israel's purported annexation of expanded East Jerusalem has been declared void, and Jerusalem has been explicitly included among the occupied territories in a long series of unanimous or near-unanimous UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

Since the right of a country to declare any part of its territory to be its capital is not contested, the universal refusal to recognize even West Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the maintenance of all embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv is striking evidence of the refusal of the international community to concede that any part of the city is Israel's sovereign territory. As if to emphasize the point, all European Union ambassadors and the American ambassador to Israel boycotted the country's recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's "unification."

A clearer understanding of what the legal status quo regarding Jerusalem really is could make Israeli public opinion less resistant to a modification of that status quo.

Israelis concerned about their future might well look back at the vision for Jerusalem of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism: "We'll simply extraterritorialize Jerusalem, which will then belong to nobody and yet to everybody, the holy place common to the adherents of all faiths, the great condominium of culture and morality." Mr. Herzl's dream of a Jewish state was wildly impractical at the time, but it existed half a century later. Whether its people ever enjoy peace and security may well depend on whether they can grasp the visionary practicality of Herzl's own recognition that what neither people of the Holy Land could ever relinquish or renounce must therefore be shared.

The late president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, clearly recognized this principle when, in a 1995 speech delivered at Harvard University in 1995, he asked: " Why not Jerusalem as the capital of two states, with no Berlin Wall? United, open, coexistence, living together." The audience rose for a standing ovation.

If Herzl and Mr. Arafat could agree on the potential of the "condominium" solution, shouldn't this potential key to peace be explored and developed by those who still believe that peace is possible and who recognize that it is urgent?

John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer, is the author of "The World According to Whitbeck." This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service ( www.commongroundnews.org ).

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