The US embassy’s move to Jerusalem on May 14 following US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the disputed city as Israel’s capital might have triggered a new round of uproar, but it also provides an opportunity to implement measures we believe can reduce tension over the holy places.
In recent years, the Holy Basin – which for our purposes comprises the Old City and the surrounding areas such as Silwan, Mount Zion and Mount of Olives, most of which lie in east Jerusalem territory that Palestinians claim as their future capital – has seen excavations of unprecedented scope, followed by massive investment to turn antiquity sites into tourist attractions and develop new sites of Jewish worship. These excavations are recreating the historic city, blotting out non-Jewish parts of its history and highlighting Jewish ones, especially the First and Second Temple periods. These include the Western Wall tunnels and the tunnels running underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, and plans for new means of transportation, such as the recently announced cable car from West Jerusalem to the Old City.
The evident emphasis of these archaeological-tourism ventures is compounded by an absence of investment in developing sites embodying the city’s Christian or Muslim histories or resolving transportation challenges faced by Christian and Muslim pilgrims and local residents. The deprecatory approach to the religious, cultural or national Other is not practiced by Israel alone. For example, some Palestinian tour guides at the Holy Esplanade (Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif) deny that the Second Temple ever existed, despite an academic consensus on this matter.
In Jerusalem lie the holiest sites to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the ancient remains are central to the identity of both national movements.
Past diplomatic efforts sought to postpone the status of Jerusalem and freeze the existing situation in the historic basin during negotiations. But one cannot really freeze development in such a charged area. It is possible however to initiate a dialogue between the parties in a bid to achieve consent over strategies and practices aimed at protecting the needs of the different major stakeholders in this historic zone.
Several steps can be taken. One would be to secure an agreement on several key principles if and when negotiations resume, to preserve Jerusalem as a city that respects the religious rituals of the three monotheistic faiths.
The parties could commit to present archaeological remains from the various historic periods embodied at the site, accompanied by explanations about the importance of each period to the city’s history. This is a seemingly self-evident demand, but the approach is practically absent in Jerusalem’s present-day historic city. The idea of presenting a multi-layered, culturally and religiously diverse story today frightens both sides. Perhaps the concern is that recognizing the other side’s story constitutes a first step toward recognizing their political rights. But formulating a relationship based on mutual respect and the ability to handle the multiplicity of views, realities and needs which characterizes Jerusalem is vital for any successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. If both sides recognize the need for a two-state solution, then such an approach would be consistent.
To this end, any outside mediation – most likely to be led by the US – should ensure that the actions of each party do not contravene the red lines of the other and that all parties can present the new approach as a victory to their respective publics. We propose setting up a team of Israeli, Palestinian and international (Jordanian, Egyptian, Vatican, etc.) professionals, who would together work toward fostering a multicultural and tolerant historic core to the city.
US mediation will have to help the sides identify a middle path toward resolving a tension potentially inherent in this approach between purely professional interests and each stakeholder’s political agenda. Ideally team members would not only be professionals but also either have influence with their respective governments or operate with their explicit, public blessing. This would add formal recognition to each of the major stakeholders’ narratives.
A new approach to development in the historic basin could lead to an instantaneous reduction in Jewish-Muslim tensions. It will also bolster the status of the Christian churches and provide a better response to the needs of the Christians in the city and the thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit it.
Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation has sent the triangular Israeli-Palestinian-American relationship into severe crisis mode. Extremists on both sides try to leverage the crisis for their own agenda, but it also offers an opportunity for a reboot. It may not be simple but articulating consentient mechanisms that promote mutual tolerance regarding Jerusalem’s historic core is a necessary move that will open the door to successful peacemaking.
As Frank Sinatra once said, “if you can make it there, you can make it everywhere.”
Ofer Zalzberg is a Jerusalem- based Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group. Yonathan Mizrach is CEO of Emek Shaveh.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post