Host city for 2020 Olympics: Why not Jerusalem?

If Israelis and Palestinians agreed to cohost the 2020 Olympic Games, it could help them clear hurdles to sustainable peace.

Vice President Biden recently visited the Middle East in an attempt to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Like other high-profile visits of recent years, his efforts fell short.

The violent status quo – one that drives many other conflicts across the region – has defied the peacemaking efforts of the world’s leading nations and the international community.

Yet there is one incentive for peace that could break the impasse and that neither Israelis nor Palestinians could refuse: an Olympic pledge.

The international community, led by the United States, should consider offering the Olympic Games of 2020 as an incentive for both Israelis and Palestinians to commit themselves to a successful peace process.

Here’s how it would work: World leaders should pledge to lobby for Jerusalem (or Al Quds in Arabic), when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) convenes in 2013 to make the decision about the host city for the 2020 Games.

However, the commitments by world leaders and by the IOC should be contingent on the achievement of a sustainable peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in the intervening three years.

In addition, the two nations would need to jointly develop a viable plan for hosting the Games. The year 2013 would be the deadline for both the peace agreement and the hosting plan.

The reason why this plan can succeed where others have failed is threefold: It puts economic payoffs front and center, requires cooperation on a large scale, and involves sublimation of otherwise deadly instincts.

With investments pouring in, and reconstruction of infrastructure and job creation, the Olympic Games bring unmistakable and tangible economic benefits to their hosts. The effects on Barcelona and Beijing, for instance, have been obvious: If nothing else, notice the major improvements in infrastructure, employment, transportation, and a brief reduction in air pollution. Indeed, some call what Barcelona went through economically a “transformation.”

Rather than a vague promise for economic prosperity that would come with peace, in the case of Palestinians and Israelis this plan gives economic improvement a place, a name, and a date.

What is more, such a common goal shared by Israelis, Palestinians, and many of the neighboring nations would facilitate long-awaited regional cooperation. In a part of the world where long-term planning typically sinks in a sea of short-term interests, the promise of the Olympic Games could reshuffle systems within and between nations.

The first Games in the Middle East, if framed the right way, are likely to attract a flood of investments from far and near and should provide the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary for successful regional cooperation. The benefits would not be limited to local interests, but would also include the forging of regional alliances.

Regional powers vying for dominance are likely to find the Games a goal worth pursuing. An Olympic pledge, with the support of the world’s leading nations contingent on successful regional cooperation, is likely to catapult Middle East politics in a new direction.

Furthermore, sports events are the closest substitute to armed conflicts. One need only observe the brawls between soccer fans, when certain European national teams meet, to be reminded of the wars those very nations waged against one another a few decades ago – and be comforted by the diminished form those conflicts presently take.

When such sublimation, inherent to sports, is combined with regional cooperation over a goal that is bound to deliver economic benefits, the prospects of the plan appear to improve a great deal. Israeli and Arab sport teams usually avoid playing on the same field. This plan would not only put them on the same field but also on the same metaphorical team.

The scores of new sport stadiums, hotels, and shopping malls connected by upgraded road systems and modern mass transit, and tens of millions of tourists flying in through state-of-the-art airports, funded by Saudi and Emirate investments with the cooperation of Turkey and Egypt, and to the benefit of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria might seem distant. Yet, the work to plan and build those (and the associated benefits) could commence shortly.

Skeptics might say that, like its predecessors, this plan is doomed to fail.

Granted, those who benefit from economic stagnation and thrive on uninformed publics would oppose Middle East cooperation. They would probably point to what so far have been unsolvable questions such as the right of return, the settlements, and sovereignty in Jerusalem/Al Quds. And, religious fundamentalists, terrorist groups, and others who felt that peace in the region would not benefit their best interests could opt for more lethal measures rather than settle to watch disagreements play out in sports events.

The Olympic Games, however, with its economic, political, and mental benefits may be just the strong enough incentive to overcome the hurdles both Palestinians and Israelis have so far been unable to clear on the way to sustainable peace.

As hard as the challenges may be, nothing has stood in the way of an Olympic opening night. In 2020, the world could see peace in the Middle East and the torch relay conclude in the lighting of the Olympic flame positioned between the plazas of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall.

Udi Sommer is assistant professor in the department of political science, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, State University of New York at Albany

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