The New Jostling Over Jerusalem

Israelis and Palestinians go at it again over the city's future

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Jerusalem—Peace process optimists can rightly claim that there is movement on the impassioned issue of Jerusalem. In advance of next month's hoped-for Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., a 40-year taboo has been broken: Israeli politicians can now publicly advocate dividing the nation's capital with the Palestinians and not become outcasts.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a close confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has proposed letting the Palestinians establish a capital on the periphery of the city's Arab-populated sector, which Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. Surprisingly, the cabinet's most hawkish minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has endorsed a similar arrangement, his interest being to combat what he sees as the Arab "demographic threat" to the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have reportedly broached the subject of Jerusalem's future in their pre-summit talks.

But from a longer perspective, the recent movement on this most daunting of dilemmas—the seemingly irreconcilable claims—turns out to be a half step forward and several steps back. The Israelis and Palestinians made far greater progress toward a deal on Jerusalem behind closed doors at the 2000 Camp David summit, yet they couldn't paper over the remaining gaps, mainly over control of the bitterly contested Temple Mount, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. It was there, two months after Camp David, that the Palestinian intifada against Israel began, and the peace process hasn't recovered since.

Jerusalem today bears the mark of that meltdown: A tall concrete barrier, erected to block West Bank suicide bombers from entering Israel, runs through the city's Arab-populated outer neighborhoods, leaving some 50,000 of the municipality's 250,000 Arab residents on the other side.

Shifting views. Political attitudes toward Jerusalem have changed, too. Many Jerusalem Palestinians are no longer eager for their national flag to fly over their part of the city. Seeing the corruption and violence of Palestinian governance in the West Bank, along with the harshness of Israeli military control there, they quietly, unhappily, prefer to be second-class Jerusalemites under Israeli sovereignty.

The attitudes of Israelis toward Jerusalem have softened somewhat because of their late recognition that redividing the city would mean forfeiting only those precincts populated strictly by Arabs, areas that few Israeli Jews have ever visited or care to. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Israelis opposed giving up any part of Jerusalem, but in years past that figure was even higher. Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's 2000 peace offering of nearly all of post-1967, Arab-populated Jerusalem had only anemic public and political support; it's questionable whether he could have won the necessary domestic approval for such a deal even if Yasser Arafat had accepted it. And no prominent Israeli politician is suggesting the deal Barak put on the table, which included shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount. That kind of talk remains taboo in Israeli politics. On the opposite side, the Palestinian leadership hasn't budged from its Camp David demand for all of post-1967 Arab Jerusalem, including exclusive sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary and parts of the Old City.

The chasm between the two sides on this matter illustrates how hard it's going to be for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, due in the Mideast this week, to wring substantive results from the Annapolis summit. The meeting's date hasn't even been set publicly. The Israelis and Palestinians are far apart not only on Jerusalem but on the other core issues: settlements, borders, and Palestinian refugees.

The format of the summit is to have a pan-Arab presence in Annapolis, both to strengthen Abbas's credibility at home and to entice Israel with the prospect of regional acceptance. Yet the Arab nations have shown no enthusiasm. Syrian President Bashar Assad has all but ruled out having his country participate, which isn't a surprise, particularly after Israel's airstrike last month on a Syrian site reported to be a suspected clandestine nuclear facility. Even U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—the last two having peace treaties with Israel—have yet to accept invitations.