Current Israeli-Palestinian discord over the final status of Jerusalem offers a golden opportunity to attain a major breakthrough rather than a deadlock in the negotiations. The United States must seek to interject new dimensions into the peace process. Whether the Palestinians raised the Jerusalem question because they must show a substantial gain from the peace negotiations, or because of factionalism in formulating a cohesive policy toward Israel, or as a ploy to gain other concessions, is secondary. What is important is that united Jerusalem has, for 26 years, served as a microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence that has worked well, even at the height of the Intifadah. Although the Palestinians consistently claim an inalienable right to East Jerusalem, what pushed them to raise the Jerusalem issue now rather than later was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's closure of the territories, depriving them of access to East Jerusalem's health, cultural, and religious institutions. They regarded this as a sign of what they can expect of self-rule if East Jerusalem is excluded.
The US draft paper, intended to establish the basis for agreement on principles for Palestinian self-rule, proposed that "the issue of the jurisdiction over the territories will only be resolved as an outcome of the permanent-status negotiations." This position falls short of meeting the Palestinians' demand that the ultimate disposition of the territories be an integral part of the self-rule agreement. On the other hand, the paper allows discussion of the final status of Jerusalem, but only when negotiations about the permanent status of the occupied territories begin – a position that both the Israelis and Palestinians reject.
For the Israelis, Jerusalem is not a procedural matter, it is the source of their religious and cultural heritage, the symbol of their redemption from the ashes of Auschwitz, and fulfillment of a historic dream. For the Palestinians, East Jerusalem, though third in sanctity after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, remains the center of their cultural and religious institutions and the symbol of their aspirations for statehood. Because the issue is so emotionally charged, the introduction of new procedures into the peace negotiations by the US is counterproductive. It will be necessary to introduce new elements to the process and convert the stalemate into a breakthrough by changing the Madrid format and by direct, high-level American involvement.
First, the closure of the territories should be lifted and a policy of open borders must be adopted by Israel and the Palestinians, regardless of where the eventual political lines (borders) may be drawn. This arrangement should be embodied in the self-rule agreement to meet the reality of Israeli and Palestinian demographic inter-dispersements in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in Israel proper. The principle of a city open to all must never be compromised by Israel again.
Second, the Palestinians from East Jerusalem should be granted the right to vote and be elected in any future Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza and play an active role in the administrative Palestinian council. As was recently intimated by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Israel should offer the Palestinians "extraterritoriality in the united city," providing political independence to its Palestinian residents.
Third, the US must persuade Israel to incorporate into the interim agreement an understanding regarding the ultimate disposition of the territories.
Fourth, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) must be allowed to play a direct role in the negotiations. Such a concession on the part of the Israelis will enhance the PLO's stature and strengthen the Palestinian negotiating team to make decisions and demonstrate greater flexibility. Israel is already conducting secret negotiations with the PLO regarding the future of Gaza and Jericho, the first territories to be handed over to Palestinian rule. If the PLO can show a tangible gain it will be in a position to offer concessions in return.
Fifth, the US should encourage Israel, the Palestinians, and Jordan to expand the self-rule negotiations seeking a permanent settlement based on Palestinian- Jordanian confederation. All sides seem to favor this.
The US's inability or unwillingness to recognize Israel's sovereignty over united Jerusalem and its support of the Palestinian claim regarding the disposition of the territories has aggravated the situation. A more decisive US approach is needed, since neither Israel nor the Palestinians can compromise. The Clinton administration must be willing to exert pressure and exert it skillfully on both sides.