Jerusalem, the Eternal Capital of Israel

Israelis have built a road around Jerusalem.  This road combines two roads - one for the Palestinians to be able to move from the Northern West Bank to the Southern West Bank and back - and one for the Israelis.  The roads are separated by a high wall.  For the Israelis, there are a number of exits that allow travelers to go into Jerusalem or down into the Jordan Valley.  For the Palestinians, there are no exits except at the terminal points.   The road is not news, nor is the concept.  It is, instead the fulfillment of former Prime Minister Arik Sharon’s vision of the future for the Palestinian entities in Judea and Samaria. Sharon told me his idea when we discussed the issue of settlements and how one could disentangle the Jewish and Palestinian populations.  To build a two state solution, we in the State Department had always thought that there had to be real territorial unity between the Northern and Southern parts of the West Bank and that the Palestinian State had to have a presence in Jerusalem.  In fact, former President Bush had on several occasions talked about the need for territorial contiguity within the Palestinian state. Sharon, in his talks with me, however, never spoke of the West Bank as one contiguous Palestinian entity that could form the basis of a State.

Sharon spoke of the contiguity of movement - not territory.  His vision was of a series of tunnels and restricted access roads that would tie the various Palestinian parcels of land together. Meanwhile, Israel would dominate the high points and strategic crossing points to ensure Israel’s security in the future.  Sharon, who drove the settlement process, placed these Israeli outposts as a guarantee against the possibility of terrorist dominated Palestinian entity and invasion from the East. 

One of the implications of the road was that the Palestinians neighborhoods of Jerusalem would be increasingly isolated by physical barriers from the rest of the West Bank.  In fact, Sharon never contemplated giving any part of Jerusalem up.  From the earliest days, in 1980, when I was working with Sol Linowitz on the Autonomy negotiations, Sharon made it clear to us that we should start with the Jerusalem question because once the Palestinians accepted Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, then a settlement of other issues and peace would be relatively easy to reach.  He never answered the question of how we were to get the Palestinians, let alone the Islamic world, to agree to such a solution.

The settlements that Israel has built around Jerusalem are unworthy of the name “settlement.”  They are mini cities that are permanent fixtures.  Their imposing presence convinced both Presidents Clinton and Bush that the Palestinians would have to accept this fait accompli.  And that very acceptance has pointed the way for Israel’s political leadership toward constructing - literally - a unilateral final resolution of the Jerusalem question.  There is still some more building to do to fill in the gaps that exist, but despite the inevitable wringing of hands in the State Department, With the new Israeli announcement of additional housing in Jerusalem the Israeli plans for Jerusalem are going forward meaning that the Arab parts of Jerusalem will, within ten years, be nothing more than an isolated island in the middle of a sprawling Israeli city. 

This is a story that has a long history.  My first post was in Israel in 1969.  At that time, Israel was in the process of establishing settlements in the Jordan valley.  They would start as Nahals, or military outposts, designed to pin down the border with Jordan and to secure the heights against future attack from the East. And gradually they would metamorphose into civilian settlements. The Israeli government had no declared policy of siezing the Jordan valley, but the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Yigal Allon had written a short book in Hebrew outlining his concept of a peace in which Israel would gain sovereignty over one third of the West Bank along the Jordan border.  I wrote a report linking the plan to the settlements, but there was no interest in Washington, or in the Embassy in the facts on the ground.  Why waste time and leverage on settlements when all our efforts were directed toward a final settlement.

From that point on, we have watched and done nothing as the Israelis have built hundreds of settlements all over the West Bank.  And we have been particularly passive when it comes to Jerusalem.  Once in a while we have protested or sent our Ambassadors in to complain, but the Israelis know full well that we are not going to press the point.  It has always been inconvenient to press the Israelis on what was seen as the secondary question of the settlements when the more important issue of a final peace agreement was at stake.  And yet, it is this very secondary question that has gradually excluded an increasingly large area of Palestinian land from any possible agreement and is putting the possibility of a final agreement out of reach forever.

When I started in the business, my bosses conceded that the Latrun Salient - that small spit of Palestinian land that juts out from the West Bank into the land bridge that Israel had between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - would be taken off the table and awarded to Israel. Now we are talking about taking all major Israeli city settlements off the table - over 8% of the West Bank.  And very soon, we will likely see the encirclement of Jerusalem completed and Jerusalem too will come off the table.      

When that day comes the chances for peace will be gone, possibly forever.  How could a Palestinian agree to a settlement that did not have Jerusalem as an integral component? Yet I have not yet seen a US administration that has the political will tostop the permanent acquisition of Jerusalem as the undivided eternal capital of Israel. The Israelis know very well that when the issue is Jerusalem, Congress will go their way and the President will not be far behind.  Objections based on the impact on our interests in the region will melt away in the warm glow of American politics.  It is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible and now more likely probable.  So we had better start to plan now for how we will manage our interests in the region in the long term as Palestinian statehood and an Arab stake in Jerusalem dissolve in the politics of Israel and America. Is it time for us to recognize that a two state solution is no longer possible and to start preparing for the consequences?