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If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge

Jerusalem is a holy city for three major religions, so why should any earthly power claim sovereignty there?

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock)
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The current negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, are likely sometime this year to culminate in an agreed FAPS—that is, a Framework Agreement for a Peace Settlement—but only by means of studied, deliberate ambiguity: a generous use of weasel words, the allowance of unilateral reservations, a nonbinding status, and the careful avoidance of the more intractable issues. One of those supposedly intractable issues, as everyone knows, is Jerusalem.

Except that it really isn’t intractable at all. There’s no reason to tiptoe around Jerusalem in the current negotiations because a solution is there for the taking, is even sort of obvious, and has been obvious for many years.

It’s clear that the two sides, Israeli and Palestinian, will never agree that the other should have exclusive national sovereignty over the city, or that one should have “more sovereignty” than the other, which is anyway oxymoronic unless we allow the Mad Hatter to define sovereignty. Only two alternatives remain: Split or share sovereignty 50-50 (also an oxymoron), or, much better, agree to leave the question of national sovereignty over Jerusalem permanently in abeyance, and instead acknowledge the sovereignty of God. The Zero Option, in other words; or, if you prefer, the God Option.

I say this solution has been obvious for a while because the last time the two sides at least seemed close to a deal, in the spring and summer of 2000, four proposals along these lines had been put forth. First there was King Hussein of Jordan. The king, who died in February 1999, had been saying for years that the holy places in the city should be above conventional sovereignty and that sovereignty should be God’s. He never suggested that the entire city, or even the entire Old City, should be handled that way, but he didn’t rule it out either.

Of course Jordan had a role historically in the city, so Hussein’s motives were not entirely disinterested. After the Old City fell into Israeli hands in June 1967, Jordan still ran the waqf, the Islamic endowment, on Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount, for many years—until somewhat grudgingly granting that role to the Palestinian Authority. The king also used his own family money to regild the dome on the Dome of the Rock back in 1993 and 1994. A dozen years or so ago Jordan was Jerusalem’s third suitor, and the logic of Hussein’s idea was to keep suitors one and two at bay for as long as possible. Whatever the motive, the king deserves credit for giving first voice, as far back as the early 1980s, to ideas about shared control without repartition and divine sovereignty for the core symbolic parts of the city.

Another advocate in 2000, also with a parochial interest of a sort in a God Option, was Michael Sabbah, the Roman Catholic patriarch. He picked up where King Hussein left off and widened the applicable scope of the idea. A third, who was simply trying to help, was Hebrew University law professor—and later winner of the Israel Prize—Ruth Lapidoth. For what it’s worth, I had the same idea in June 1981, which struck somewhere over the Atlantic during a plane ride from New York to Amman. I jotted down the essence on a piece of paper and remembered it later, during those heady, occasionally hopeful days between the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and Camp David in 2000.

It didn’t matter who had this idea as of summer 2000 because at Camp David the problem was not the lack of an agreed solution for Jerusalem. The problem was that Yasser Arafat was not interested in making peace if it meant that he could no longer be a responsibility-free revolutionary and if it increased the chance that some angry Arab might shoot him for selling out the cause. I’m still skeptical, albeit for other reasons, that the current negotiating efforts will “get to yes.” But I could be mistaken, and if so I’d feel terrible if the deal went down just because I was too lazy to repeat the best solution for Jerusalem.

***

The main problem with Jerusalem, the Old City in particular, is not anything to do with security or voting or collecting taxes or providing basic services or recording land titles or establishing rational municipal boundaries—although, truth to tell, all these matters could use some concerted attention. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to pragmatic, quotidian arrangements, things work pretty well most of the time.

No, the real problem is symbolic. Jerusalem, beyond being a real place, is a very symbolic place. It’s too symbolic for its own good, perhaps, but it is what it is. Because of this, neither side can countenance concessions in matters of principle. Even were Israeli or Palestinian leaders to consider such a thing, rabid partisans of one side or another—probably both—would crucify them for all their trouble. (I use the word advisedly.) It’s just not possible to divide a mystical whole. Things or places with the aura of eternity floating about them somehow defy the law of integers.

The two sides—and others with an interest like Hashemite Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Christians of various descriptions—can far more easily swallow a no-national-sovereignty solution. Human nature being what it is, it’s much easier to accept not having something if your rival doesn’t have it either.

Moreover, the religious leaders who swarm the city would likely be embarrassed to deny sovereignty to God, so the idea might get a boost by default from the unlikeliest but sweetest source of all: the forced magnanimity of the otherwise voraciously self-interested. Hypocrisy often transforms itself into the advance wave of a new truth, and that could be the case here as well.

The Zero Option is not about the internationalization of Jerusalem but about its complete symbolic de-nationalization. No foreign nationals or international bureaucrats are necessary, or desirable, in this scheme. Indeed, if the two sides adopt the Zero Option for Jerusalem, it would mean not more institutional flags, crests, and political icons in the Old City, but no flags, crests, and political icons anywhere in the Old City. In a two-state solution Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital, as it has always been, with the Knesset well beyond the walls of the Old City. A Palestinian state could have its capital in East Jerusalem, but no government offices of any kind could be located, in perpetuity, in the Old City.

Jerusalem would then in the fullness of time have a much better chance of becoming a genuine city of peace, a genuinely holy place, if nationalism and politics bowed for once to a unified expression of the oneness of humanity, a central tenet of all monotheistic faiths. The symbolism of God’s sovereignty in Jerusalem might eventually engender real tolerance among all the city’s inhabitants, instead of the mere forbearance we mostly have now.

The Zero Option for Jerusalem has one more argument solidly in its favor: It leaves the resolution of all geographically specific theological tussles in and around the city up to God—which, of course, is the case anyway. Will the Jews build the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, after maybe an earthquake destroys al-Aqsa? Will Mohammed descend upon the city crossing the Western Wall, mounted on Buraq, during the Day of Judgment? Will Jews and Muslims both be surprised when Jesus returns to the city, skipping down from the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to declare the Kingdom of God? None of the above? One of the above? All of the above? Let God sort it out.

That means, practically speaking, that for the time being there can be no messing with the post-1967 status quo that ensures the right of all religious communities to access and maintain their religious sites and prevents anyone from infringing on the established practices of others. There might still be disputes over the provenance of archeological research in sensitive places, but in an improved atmosphere of mutual respect nurtured by a stable working relationship between the sides those disputes may well prove easier to handle.

We should be lucky enough to get to a point where solving Jerusalem is all that stands between hope and success. But if we do, solving Jerusalem need not prove that hard, especially if the Zero Option is written into the developing FAPS now. It could be that neither side would endorse the idea right away, but both will come to see that it’s the only way in the end to crack the nut. In the meantime, we would be wise to take God’s silence over the issue as a sign of his assent.

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If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge

Jerusalem is a holy city for three major religions, so why should any earthly power claim sovereignty there?

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