It was last Wednesday that Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center for the National Interest, shared his insights on the subject of “The Middle East and Climate Change.”
At 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Hall of Philosophy, the Middle East Update will continue and gears will shift as Kemp is joined by Ambassador Dennis Ross, William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, as they refocus the conversation, title and topic, to “Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem is so important today, and it has been historically,” Kemp said. “And part of it has to do with its geography on the top of a ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean. It was endowed with an extraordinary natural water source spring that has kept it going for 5,000 years. It’s a city that’s the home of the three monotheistic religions. It’s a city that has changed control hundreds of times over the years.”
Jerusalem is a modest-sized city with a population of approximately 870,000. A kind of natural delineation has already been established between the east and west sides: The Jewish population, about 60 percent, comprise west and east Jerusalem, and the Arab population, about 35 percent, primarily occupy east Jerusalem. The rest of the city dwellers spread between east and west, identifying as Christian and various other groups.
Herein lies the problem. A problem of identity. One that Kemp said is perhaps one of the most difficult issues in the region.
“The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of the new Palestinian state,” Kemp said. “And the Israelis want Jerusalem never again to be divided.”
But between 1948 and 1967, the Israelis were supposed to have had access to the Western Wall and the cemetery at the Mount of Olives, each of which were denied by the Palestinians. This, Ross said, is what produced a strong sense of “never again” for the Israelis.
“This is obviously a difficult, maybe the most difficult of all the issues to resolve,” Ross said. “But ultimately, for those who are thinking from an Israeli standpoint, how do they preserve a Jewish democratic state, one way to deal with the demographics is not to absorb all the Arabs of Jerusalem, which are almost all exclusively in east Jerusalem. I do think there is a way to resolve this, and that’s to follow the principle that what’s Jewish is Israeli and what’s Arab is Palestinian.”
For the Israelis, Ross said, the emblem of Jerusalem is very much the essence of Zionism. The Zionist movement had been a return to Zion, a return to Jerusalem. As the closing prayer of the Passover service, the Jews recite the phrase, “next year in Jerusalem,” a sentiment that has continued to be repeated annually for the past couple thousand years.
In recent years, there has been government negotiations and interventions in hopes of alleviating the stress and conflict of the region. One such was the Clinton Parameters.
“We suggested from a political standpoint that you wouldn’t divide the city physically,” said Ross, who was a prominent author of the proposal. “But you would create two capitals for two states based on the principle that what is Jewish, both in west and east Jerusalem, will be Israeli, and what is Arab will be Palestinian. But because the Old City is so small, it’s less than one square kilometer, you would follow the principle, but you would have to create a practical administrative arrangement where that special regime for the Old City would guide the day-to-day governance.”
In terms of a Palestinian political presence, Ross said, it is quite weak, divided and limited, largely alienated from its leadership. A possible solution, Ross suggested, would be to implement an “Arab umbrella,” which would allow consolation for the Israelis if they made any concessions toward the Palestinians. Whatever return the Israelis received would largely be from the Arabs.
As for peace in Jerusalem, Ross doesn’t see any results being very forthcoming. It’s not easy building the basis for two states for two peoples. It very much requires a practical approach, allowing for civil conversation, taking it step by step.
“You can talk about those kind of approaches,” Ross said. “Even if you can’t produce this in an imminent way, you are trying to create the circumstance in which it becomes more likely.”