Jerusalem embodies the conflict

It is not known yet whether the Annapolis meeting is going to deal with final status issues. Indeed, until now the main area that is being worked out between the parties is what level of substance this meeting should deal with and whether it is going to present a document that marks political progress on final status issues or just repeat the already existing commitment of the parties to negotiate these issues, already stipulated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles as Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security, water and borders.

The American suggestion to ensure that Annapolis marks a new achievement and not just an inauguration of the resumption of final status negotiations is to declare an independent Palestinian state whose components will all be negotiated later, including borders, capital, etc., etc. It is an idea that is not attractive to the Palestinian leadership because it will leave the substantial details and make-up of that state to the mercy of bilateral negotiations, i.e., to the balance of power between the two sides. Furthermore, this idea is similar to the second phase of the roadmap, which was already rejected by the Palestinian side.

The main reason American interlocutors are sympathetic to the Israeli desire to keep the Annapolis meeting insubstantial is their sensitivity to internal Israeli politics and the weakness of the Israeli leadership. The best evidence of this weakness was the reaction to recent media reports about possible discussions of final status issues, including on Jerusalem. More than one member of the coalition threatened to withdraw and let the government fall or used their platform to attack Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and further weaken him. As is usual under weak leadership, Olmert bowed to this pressure, and to placate critics both from left and right he activated certain Israeli policies regarding occupied East Jerusalem that had hitherto lain dormant as a result of international pressure.

The two prominent examples are the E1 settlement expansion plan–that links the West Bank’s largest settlement Maaleh Adumim with other settlements in East Jerusalem thus encircling the city and practically cutting the West Bank in two–and the confiscation of a few thousand dunams of land from Arab villages near Jerusalem, including Abu Dis, for the construction of new bypass roads.

The discussion about including or excluding final status issues at Annapolis and the acceleration of illegal Israeli activities in occupied East Jerusalem that aim to consolidate Israel’s grip on the city, has brought back attention to the thorny and sensitive issue of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a particularly important issue, because not only does it embody the final status issues of borders, settlements and security, it also includes elements that derive from the city’s unique religious and historic importance.

There can be no agreement on Jerusalem unless the two sides start by agreeing on the proper political and legal terms of reference and accept to stick to these as the only framework under which resolution can be found. If they are not beholden to mutually agreed upon terms of reference each side will act only according to the logic of its own narrow perspective and from its own position in the balance of power.

There will be nothing to talk about and everything to fight about.

The terms of reference for the Madrid peace process, the Oslo agreement and the roadmap were all based on the relevant sections of international law and resolutions of the UN Security Council. These consider Israeli control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, to be an illegal military occupation and that a requisite for peace and normal relations is an end to that occupation.

Nevertheless, the religious and historical importance of Jerusalem needs to be taken into consideration, separate from the political and legal aspects. If an Islamic, Christian or Jewish religious or historical site winds up on one or the other side of the legal borders of 1967, it has to be accessible to the relevant community. Religious and historical rights have to be preserved alongside any political and legal agreement.