Prospects for a genuine breakthrough in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process are close to nil. Indeed, for a variety of reasons deriving mainly from weak leadership and dysfunctional political systems, the process has never enjoyed a serious chance of success since its initiation at Annapolis last November. But something can always be learned even from a failed peace process. Just conceivably that something may be connected to Jerusalem–the one topic the two sides are ostensibly not discussing.
In this connection, the non-negotiations over Jerusalem in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks recently produced an interesting innovation: the Olmert government reportedly proposed that when negotiations over Jerusalem do take place, they involve additional parties with a direct interest in the outcome. The quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) was of course mentioned. Jordan, whose role and interests in Jerusalem were written into the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994, and Morocco, whose king heads the Arab League’s "Jerusalem committee", were also named.
We recall that the only time in the recent past when Israelis and Palestinians did try to negotiate Jerusalem, at Camp David in July 2000, it quickly emerged that one of the principal obstacles to progress was the absence of these and additional Arab and Muslim third parties. None of the three teams at Camp David, the United States, Israel and the PLO, had bothered to brief the Arab world in advance about the nature of the Jerusalem discussions, and by the time the need for Egyptian, Saudi and other Arab and Muslim state input was recognized by Washington it was too late.
Arab and other outside participation in discussing a Jerusalem settlement does not, as critics on the Israeli and Jewish right argue, have to mean "internationalization" of the city. Nor does it bespeak an attempt by the international community to gang up on Israel and compel it to forego its legitimate demand that Jerusalem, including all its Jewish neighborhoods, be recognized as the capital of Israel, that the sanctity of Jewish holy places be guaranteed and that all Jerusalemites live in security. In recent years, a succession of Israeli governments has increasingly acknowledged both Israel’s objective need and its capacity to involve the international community in solving or mitigating its conflicts with neighboring non-state actors.
The simple reality is that neither Jerusalem nor the refugee issue can be resolved without the participation of additional Arab countries. Just as the PLO needs the support and contribution of those Arab states that host the Palestinian refugees in order to make the necessary compromises with Israel on the right of return issue, so it cannot permit itself to make binding decisions on its own regarding the disposition of Muslim (and Christian) holy places and Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem without the backing and involvement of the leading Arab and Muslim countries. While in any negotiating framework Israel can represent Jewish interests in the holy city, the Palestinians alone cannot represent Muslim interests with regard to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex with its two mosques. Yasser Arafat admitted as much at Camp David, and he was a far stronger leader than Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel does not have to invent a new international framework in order to solicit the necessary Arab involvement; the Arabs themselves have created it, in the form of the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and 2007. Now the time has come for them to acknowledge and exploit the opportunity they have created.
The difficulty in linking the Arab peace initiative directly to Arab involvement in a Jerusalem settlement is not posed primarily by Israel. The Olmert government and its predecessors may bear the blame for creating many of the physical obstacles to a rational Jerusalem settlement based on two capitals and two demographic units. But it is the leading Arab countries that, having offered Israel normalization and security in return for peace settlements, now refuse to participate in bringing about those settlements. In this respect, the good news is that their very reluctance signals that, when the Arab states do lend a hand, they are not likely to try to impose anything on anyone.
The current peace process is almost certain to dissipate within weeks or months, if only because of the upcoming political turmoil in Israel. A breakthrough on Jerusalem is the last thing we can expect. Elections in Israel and Palestine may, in the course of the coming half year or so, render a renewed peace process even more difficult.
Meanwhile, regional circumstances, particularly in Iran and Iraq, have placed the mainstream Arab states in a growing strategic predicament whereby their need to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict grows apace. They may justifiably have patted themselves on the back for their admirable peace initiative; they can certainly make a case that Israel has to do more to fulfill its end of the proposed deal. But they cannot escape the need to take additional courageous steps of their own toward advancing a solution.
Jerusalem provides the perfect opportunity. Let the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Moroccans declare that they are partners, alongside the PLO, for discussing and implementing fair compromise arrangements in Jerusalem that respect the legitimate rights and needs of Israel and the Jewish people.