The [Apparent] Re-Emergence of the “Greater Jerusalem” Gimmick

There have been numerous reports to the effect that the idea of establishing a Palestinian capital in the environs of “Greater Jerusalem,” in a place like Abu Dis, is once again under consideration. The most prominent of these reports came last week in the context of the latest visit of Secretary Kerry to Israel. For example:

According to a report on Israel’s Channel 10 News, the US security proposal was intentionally vague so that both sides could claim to have wrested concessions and present their people with a victory. The channel’s veteran correspondent Raviv Druker gave as an the example of the thorny issue of Jerusalem. According to the Kerry proposal, Druker said, the deal would say that “Greater Jerusalem” would be the capital of both states. Such wording, he explained would allow the Palestinians to say they have a capital in Jerusalem, while Israel could say their capital is in the eastern neighborhood of Abu Dis, not in Jerusalem proper.

There are no indications, besides unverified media reports and gossip, that this idea of a Palestinian capital in “Greater Jerusalem” – akin to the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen formulation – is under serious consideration by U.S. negotiators. Nonetheless, the idea is clearly being bandied about in various quarters, and is now out there prominently in the public discourse. In light of these facts, the proposal requires serious review.

The idea of a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis (or some other area on the fringes of Jerusalem) is rooted in the Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement (October 1995). It should be recalled that, back in 1995, Israel and most of the world still viewed as radical and radioactive any open talk of Palestinian statehood; discussion of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem was far beyond the pale. Within that political climate, Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas came together to try to conceive solutions that could neutralize the most radioactive issues. The Beilin-Abu Mazen proposal on Jerusalem is precisely such a “solution,” suggesting a way in which Israel could have its cake (the whole cake) and the Palestinians could have something cake-like, too. This solution entailed Israel, in effect, retaining its hold over and its capital in the entire area known in the post-1967 period as “Jerusalem,” and the Palestinians being granted permission to establish their capital in some adjacent area, which they would also be allowed to call “Jerusalem.”

The Beilin-Abu Mazen approach was ground-breaking 17 years ago, in that it opened discussion about a Palestinian capital called “Jerusalem,” irrespective of the actual location of that capital. Such an approach today is nearly two-decades past its sell-by date, having been superseded by four major plans that concretely moved the ball forward: the Clinton Parameters (December 2000), Israel’s Taba proposal(January 2001), the Palestinian proposal at Annapolis (November 2007), and Olmert’s proposal to Abbas (September 2008). With respect to Jerusalem, the starting point under all of these proposals, and with varying degrees of specificity, is that a two-state solution will entail a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem – those areas occupied by Israel in 1967 – with some sort of special arrangements to deal with the Old City and its historic basin, as well as to address settlements that Israel has built or permitted to take root in that area since 1967. None of these proposals suggest that a Palestinian capital will be established in some random area adjacent to Jerusalem that is re-named, for the sake of political expediency (but fooling no one) “Palestinian Jerusalem.”

It thus must be recognized that, today, the “Greater Jerusalem” formulation represents a retreat from more than a decade of progress made in peace efforts. Such a retreat would almost certainly – and understandably – be rejected by Palestinians. Why? First, because such an approach directly contradicts the foundational assumption of the entire peace effort, from a Palestinian perspective: end of conflict/end of claims in exchange for an end of the occupation. The “Greater Jerusalem” framework for dealing with Jerusalem is clearly designed to leave most, if not all, of East Jerusalem under occupation. For the Palestinians, this is likely a non-starter.

Second, based on the experience of the past 45 years, Palestinians have every reason to assume that, if negotiations proceed based on a “Greater Jerusalem” framework, Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem will continue and accelerate. In this way, Israel will ensure that any Palestinian capital, even if it is called “Jerusalem,” is wholly severed from those areas that all Palestinians and the entire world actually identify with that name. This, too, is almost certainly a non-starter.

Third, the starting point of the “Greater Jerusalem” formula – under Beilin-Abu Mazen and today – is to remove any Palestinian role in the future of the Old City and its historic basin. This was unrealistic in 1995, and 17 years later, it is clearly a non-starter.

In short, adopting the “Greater Jerusalem” gimmick would discredit negotiations and those Palestinians who support them, and could compel the Palestinians to leave negotiations.

Finally, it should be emphasized that while the “Greater Jerusalem” gimmick might be bad enough to force President Abbas to abandon talks, it would also not be “good enough” to help Netanyahu with his hard-line base. For Netanyahu’s hardcore constituents and political partners, ANY “compromise” on Jerusalem is unacceptable – and for them, “Greater Jerusalem” is just as precious as the city itself.  Thus, embracing the “Greater Jerusalem” framing would come at a potentially very high cost (discrediting negotiations, likely moving the Palestinians to quit talks), and offer little or not benefit (not insulating Netanyahu from his critics on the right). It is a lose-lose proposition that should be immediately discarded.