The Middle East Channel

Redeeming Jerusalem by truth, not hollow slogans

In recent full page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, renowned author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel argued that Jerusalem is "above politics." But the portrait of the city Wiesel painted is so factually inaccurate and so morally specious as to leave no room for doubt: Wiesel's false innocence and moral posturing over Jerusalem is an example of politics par excellence, with Wiesel willingly becoming a tool of Israel's extreme right in its desperate efforts to block Obama's peace efforts.

A review of the facts is in order.

93 percent of Israel - including most of West Jerusalem and the 35 percent of privately-owned land in East Jerusalem expropriated by Israel since 1967 - is categorized by Israel as "State Land." Only Israeli citizens and those entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return may acquire properties on this land. Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categories. So while Wiesel may purchase a home in anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, a Palestinian cannot.

Since 1967, Israel has built more than 50,000 dwellings for Israelis in East Jerusalem, but has built fewer than 600 for Palestinians (the last was built 35 years ago). And from 1967 until today, as East Jerusalem's Palestinian population increased from 70,000 to 280,000, Israel has issued only 4,000 permits for private Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem. Barred from building legally, the Palestinians built without permits - leaving them subject to Israeli demolition of their "illegal" homes.

Today extreme settler groups have launched a campaign to evict Palestinian families - refugees of Israel's War of Independence - from densely-populated Palestinian neighborhoods in the heart of East Jerusalem. They are doing so based on the "right" of Jews to recover properties lost in the 1948 war. But under Israeli law Palestinians have no such right. So while Israel insists that Palestinians renounce any "right of return" - something understood as necessary for the two-state solution - it is implementing a Jewish right of return to Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and turning 1948 refugees into 2010 refugees.

And then there is the question of Israel's respect for other religions.

In recent years the Israeli Government has transferred virtually all of the most sensitive religious, archeological and cultural sites in East Jerusalem to the de facto control of extreme settler groups. These groups are abusing archeology and public planning to highlight the Jewish past, while marginalizing the Christian, Muslim and Palestinian dimensions of the city, past and present.

Due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington's National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City's al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.

Before our eyes, Jerusalem is becoming the arena where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is morphing from a resolvable national conflict into a religious war - a transformation that, if it continues, poses an existential threat to Israel. And what starts in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem: conflict in Jerusalem resonates throughout the region and beyond, wind in the sails of every jihadist. 

By asserting the Jewish people's exclusive "ownership" of Jerusalem, Wiesel embraces the policies that are accelerating this metamorphosis.

Wiesel ignores these facts. He ignores the fact that the policies he is defending will soon turn Jerusalem into a city so balkanized, geographically and demographically, that the two-state solution will no longer be possible. And the demise of the two-state solution portends the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, to be replaced by either an apartheid-like reality with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority, or by a bi-national Arab-Jewish state.

Israel is at an existential crossroads with Jerusalem. Current policies cannot be justified - even by Elie Wiesel, even to Israel's staunchest allies. These policies consistently derail the resumption of negotiations towards a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The cumulative impact of these policies will be the destruction of the two-state solution, the radicalization of the conflict and the de-legitimization of Israel. With these policies, Jerusalem is becoming the place where Israel slides down the slippery slope into pariah status.

By agreeing to carry the water for Israel's extreme right, Wiesel has not only undermined his own moral authority, but has done so in the service of a political agenda that is a grave threat to Israel's most vital interests. If Wiesel loves Jerusalem as much as he claims, he should indeed put Jerusalem above politics and join President Obama in his insistence that these dangerous policies cease, and support Obama's efforts to achieve a final status agreement that resolves all the issues, not the least of which being Jerusalem.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

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The Middle East Channel

Middle East Peace: So Why Have We Failed?

[This week the Middle East Channel posted answers to questions about the elusive quest for peace from experts and former leading practitioners of the peace process. Continuing this series below is the response of Ambassador Nabil Fahmy.]

Aaron David Miller's piece entitled ‘The False Religion of Middle East Peace' is as typically passionate and insightful as many of his other contributions. I share his frustration and have recently published articles reflecting that in the Arabic Middle Eastern press. So, at least two Middle East negotiators from different parts of the world (with accumulative professional experience of over 60 years) share a deep frustration and concern with the present state of play.

I have questioned openly in recent months whether the continuation of the peace process is viable.  And I have further cautioned against the consequences of pursuing a process that had no possibility for success.  The latter because it was eroding the very principles that have governed all Arab-Israeli agreements and must govern future ones if the objective is a two state solution, based on ‘land for peace', ending the occupation of Arab territories in 1967 and providing security for all states in the region including Israel.

While I am in agreement with Aaron Miller in this respect and don't envisage comprehensive peace with the present set of players in the region, I am not a non-believer in the possibility of peace between Arabs and Israelis or the commitment to its pursuit. Like most religions, the fundamental message is often distorted by micro-analysis and parochial human interpretations that are self-serving and contradict the essence of the religion itself.

I have drawn many lessons from my years of participation in the Middle East peace negotiations all the way back to 1976. The first is that initiating peace processes or crossing new thresholds are always a function of regional developments--be they the wars of ‘56, ‘67 and ‘73, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, or peace initiatives such as Egypt's pioneering efforts in the late 70's or the Oslo process. And progress was always contingent on a balance of power between the different parties: be that a configuration of asymmetrical military power, political power or the power to sustain pain and suffering.

Another equally important lesson is that with the exception of the 1991 Madrid peace process, the role of the United States has been generally reactive and important only during the final phases of negotiations. It was late on the ‘73 war, the Oslo process, and successful in the closing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and adding the frosting to the Jordanian-Israeli one.

A third noteworthy lesson is that the United States' role is generally unsuccessful because its politics bring in parochial domestic concerns to a strategic issue, except in situations where there has been a clear, overriding national interest for the United States which guided its diplomacy towards a clear target. The Nixon-Kissinger efforts after the 1973 war to conclude the Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements and create a stronger American footprint in the Middle East at Soviet expense; the Carter driven Egyptian-Israeli Camp David negotiations that concluded with Egyptian-Israeli peace and consequently no realistic possibility of recurrent comprehensive Arab-Israeli wars; and the Bush-Baker efforts that culminated in the Madrid Conference of 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait because of the need to resettle the Middle East--all three were successful examples of American diplomacy driven by clearly defined national interests. 

All of the Middle Eastern and international players--Arab, Israeli, American, Quartet members--share in the blame for our failures because they did not preserve this imperative balance of power that is required to move forward in the absence of great leaders of wisdom and vision. The Middle Eastern actors are to blame because they placed safe-guarding their perches of power and status ahead of national objectives and goals (this is self-evident in looking at the Israeli-Palestinian theater). The United States is greatly at fault because it put accommodating Israeli politics, and often the Israeli right-wing, ahead of its own national interest and the strategic goal of peace. (It would be wise to instead preserve a distance between its positions and those of the different adversaries, not only to gain credibility with the Arab side but even more so to give cover to the peace movement, the left and the majority of the center in Israel to generate momentum for a historic compromise). For too often in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations the United States reduced itself to the role of communicator and landscaper rather than that of global power. I remember being in Gaza in December 1996 during the failed Khalil agreement negotiations, witnessing the American team, and Aaron Miller in particular, being instructed to measure the size and configuration of parking spaces on the road ways in Gaza.

Regrettably, I don't see permanent status negotiations starting and concluding successfully in the near future. Nevertheless, I would love to be proven wrong by assertive, creative and strategic diplomacy by the Obama administration. Contrary to Miller, I strongly believe that the US should submit a detailed peace package endorsed by the Quartet. This could serve to jolt the parties and energize their constituencies in support of peace. It would also constitute the international community's statement of record. However, in the absence of any real possibility for progress, it is imperative to consolidate our gains and preserve the fundamentals that govern the peace process. As such, I would suggest that the Security Council adopt two resolutions, preferably sponsored by the members of the Quartet.

The first resolution would be short and straightforward, emphasizing that Arab-Israeli peace is a strategic international goal and that Israeli building in East Jerusalem is illegitimate and rejected by the international community. Aaron Miller may be a non-believer now, but all of the Middle East and beyond will be non-believers--and vehemently so--if Israel continues building in East Jerusalem in blatant disregard of Muslim, Christian and Arab sentiment. 

The second resolution would recognize the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, and as consequence preserve the commitment for a two-state solution for future negotiations. On that basis it would further allow the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel the arrangements that might bring the realization of peace.

Needless to say, these suggestions do not solve the conflict--that is not presently possible. But they do preserve the fundamentals and prevent the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from becoming irresolvable in the future if we have a better cast of characters in the Middle East and more even handed strategic diplomacy beyond it.

Nabil Fahmy is the former Ambassador of Egypt to the US and Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo

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