The future of Jerusalem has yet again presented itself as one of the most difficult issues in final status negotiations. This is not to say that other issues are either easy or have already been resolved, but the issues of Jerusalem and refugees appear the hardest to crack.
Of course, the issues under negotiation are mostly interrelated. Jerusalem cannot be fully resolved without resolving the issue of borders. The city was divided into east and west by the 1967 border and the eastern side continues to constitute occupied territory under international law. Nor can any resolution of Jerusalem be reached without at least some resolution to the issue of settlements, since a majority of Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied territory are in Jerusalem and its environs. There is also a religious dimension to Jerusalem that centers on the status of the Old City.
One lesson that came out of the Camp David negotiations over Jerusalem is that the issue is not merely of paramount importance to Palestinians but also to the wider Arab and Muslim world. The late president Yasser Arafat used the Arab and Muslim dimension to the issue to underscore the fact that it was not in his power to make concessions over the city in negotiations with Israel.
Israelis, however, seem to have misunderstood this position to mean that Palestinians might make concessions over Jerusalem if the Arab and Muslim world could be persuaded to accept this. Thus, many Israelis concluded, if the Arab and Muslim position on Jerusalem could be neutralized, the Palestinian leadership would be freed to take a "more flexible" position.
There are two obvious misperceptions that need to be corrected in this conclusion. The first is to underline that Arabs and Muslims are in complete agreement with the Palestinian leadership on the issue of Jerusalem as well as other aspects related to negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. The basis of this common position is very simple: there is a need, in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions, to end the occupation of all territory taken in the 1967 war. This includes East Jerusalem.
The other is to point out that this agreement, based on the principle of international law, means that it is neither the case that Palestinians will not concede over Jerusalem because Arabs and Muslims won’t let them nor that Arabs and Muslims won’t concede over Jerusalem because of Palestinians. There is no "concession" to make over the issue. As such, it is a major mistake by Israel to continue to ignore the Arab peace initiative, which clearly spells out the Arab position and reflects a consensus.
The recent Israeli suggestion to involve an Arab or Islamic dimension in the negotiations on Jerusalem and the concomitant invitation to certain Arab or Islamic parties is a result of the above misunderstanding. It is probably also a tactic to further delay progress in negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has shown himself mostly interested in dragging out negotiations in order to prolong his own grip on power and avoid his domestic travails. Unfortunately, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and Olmert’s likely successor, seems equally likely to want talks to continue as long as possible without result in order to prolong her own tenure. In other words, the conclusion that was reached by Ahmed Qurei, the chief Palestinian negotiator–that domestic Israeli political developments are not at all conducive to progress in the peace process–appears correct.
What Israelis need to understand is that neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs are willing to accept any kind of solution concerning borders, Jerusalem, settlements or refugees that gives Palestinians less than their rights according to international law. In other words, Israeli control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip constitute an illegal and belligerent military occupation that must end in full for conflict to end.