The to-ings and fro-ings on the long, slow trek towards an accord, though nominally secret, cannot but help leak out in one way or another. Last week in Cairo Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, let slip that Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to discuss making the Arab areas of Jerusalem the capital of a putative sovereign Palestinian state.
Did he or didn’t he? A statement was immediately issued reasserting that Israel would never cede control of a united Jerusalem. But this is the formal starting position for negotiations on the Israeli side, and the denial was only to be expected. All the same, the ceding of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian sovereign state has long been included in the various peace plans that have come and gone over the years.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Israeli Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV: "We can find a formula under which certain neighbourhoods, heavily-populated Arab neighbourhoods, could become, in a peace agreement, part of the Palestinian capital that, of course, will include also the neighbouring villages around Jerusalem." But then he would. As prime minister in 2000 Barak led Israel's delegation at the Camp David peace talks, which included just such a vision, together with the handing over of most, if not quite all, of the West Bank. These talks, of course, collapsed and were followed by the second intifada.
The Palestinians demand Jerusalem as their future capital; Israel stoutly asserts that a undivided Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of the Jewish state. Can the circle be squared?
A solution acceptable to all parties depends on how you define “Jerusalem”.
The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, which Israel lived with from 1948 to 1967, were radically redrawn after the Six Day War, and have been subject to a number of revisions since. A solution to the conundrum lies in redefining the boundaries one last time – and, in doing so, defining the boundaries of a new municipality, Al-Quds. The redefined Jerusalem municipality would encompass the Jewish suburbs and most of the Jewish neighbourhoods and settlements that lie within the present boundaries. Al Quds would include within its boundaries the mainly Arab suburbs, and – as Ehud Barak envisions – could also encompass some of the adjacent Arab towns on the West Bank.
An agreed redrawing of boundaries would indeed enable Israel to claim Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the new sovereign Palestinian state would acquire its own sister capital, Al-Quds.
A solution along these lines would leave the administration of the Old City, and in particular the vexed issue of the administration of the holy places, to be resolved.
I’ll no doubt return to this matter.