The Holy Basin: Sovereignty, Autonomy, Internationalization or Division?

Politicians, academics and poets engage in the historic dispute over Jerusalem

The poet Uri Zvi Greenberg devoted his first speech to the First Knesset to "the divided Jerusalem" and to his longing for the Old City beyond the border. Greenberg, who accepted Menachem Begin's offer to assume the second spot on the Herut movement's list for Knesset, emphasized that the name Jerusalem meant only the area within the walls, "in which lies the Temple Mount." The city outside the walls was considered the "outskirts of Jerusalem."

As Israel heads toward the elections for the 17th Knesset, most elected officials are a long way from echoing the feelings expressed by Uri Zvi Greenberg. (Five years ago, at the most recent Camp David summit, the Barak government even showed its readiness to concede roughly one-half of the Old City, as well as a major share of Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount.) But on the eve of elections, the parties prefer not to engage in an open discussion about the future of the most serious core of disagreement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

As opposed to their readiness to discuss the transfer of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority, when it comes to the Old City and the Temple Mount, there is still reticence among Israeli political parties when it comes to shattering public conventions. The same public opinion that favors the concession of Arab neighborhoods is opposed to concessions on the Old City and Temple Mount. But on one matter there is no dispute: These are the most sensitive and emotionally charged places in the world.

One fact, not necessarily a major one, found in the Lapidoth report, which was issued a few years ago, possibly tells the entire story. The report, which for the first time mapped out in detail the 900 dunams (225 acres) that are so charged with emotion, that hold such significant symbols and memories, revealed that the holy places have a tendency to reproduce. Particularly in Jerusalem. And especially in the Old City. In 1949, a list of 30 holy places in Jerusalem was submitted to the United Nations. Only half a century later, three authors - an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Armenian Christian and a Palestinian Muslim - prepared a list that enumerated no less than 326 holy places.

The Lapidoth committee, which labored in the framework of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), also placed at the disposal of policy makers a type of "holy meter," which was developed by Dr. Yifrah Zilberman, who proposed eight indicators for ranking holiness of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

Currently, Professor Ruth Lapidoth, who on the upcoming Independence Day will receive the Israel Prize for Justice, heads another team, also in the framework of the JIIS. The team submitted to the policy makers several weeks ago options for a settlement in the "historic basin of Jerusalem" - that is, the Old City and adjacent territories.

Lapidoth and her team are not the first to offer a different solution to the Old City and to the holy basin, and to the rest of Jerusalem. For example, as early as April 1992, in an article that appeared in a Jordanian newspaper Adnan Abu Odeh, chief of the Royal Court of Jordan and an aide to the late King Hussein, raised the idea of expropriating all political sovereignty from Jerusalem within the walls, and to see it as a holy place worthy of being governed by a joint council of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"The Old City within the walls should be divided from the areas outside the walls," Abu Odeh wrote. "The main holy sites of the three religions are clearly defined, distinguished and known: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Christians, the Western Wall for Jews, and the Temple Mount for Muslims - the true and holy Jerusalem will not belong to any state or any single religion. It would belong to the entire world and to the three religions, such that no state would have political sovereignty over it." Abu Odeh even suggested a complete ban on flags waving between the walls.

Similarly, in the numerous meetings held between Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein, use was made of the term "Super-sovereignty" in relation to the Old City and the holy places. Rabbi Menachem Fruman of Tekoa, a Hassid of inter-religious dialogue, has for years called for the definition of areas that would have no sovereignty, and their assignment to members of the religions. Lapidoth herself, raised the idea during the 1990s of suspending Israeli sovereignty in the Old City for an agreed-upon period, even up to 20 or 30 years.

However, the current report, which was composed by the JIIS team headed by Lapidoth, to a large extent abandons the idea of areas devoid of sovereignty, and - in the majority of the options it proposes - returns to the old-style partition. The five options that were recently presented to the Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the chairman of the Likud and Labor parties were formulated by a series of experts gathered by the JIIS: Professor Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, Ora Ahimeir, Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, Dr. Moshe Hirsch, Dr. Yifrah Zilberman, Dr. Maya Choshen, Dr. Kobi Michael, Reuven Merhav, Israel Kimhi, Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, Amnon Rimon and Dr. Emanuel Sharon.

The first option proposes full sovereignty and control by Israel throughout the basin, while granting some autonomy to the Palestinian residents, and perhaps also determining a special status for the holy places to Christianity and Islam. The meaning of this proposal is essentially institutionalization of the existing situation, as even now the Muslims and Christians operate their institutions autonomously. This option also proposes to explore the possibility of granting international immunity to the holy places or to the clergymen serving in them.

The second option is the exact opposite: Full sovereignty and control by the Palestinians throughout the basin, with autonomy for the Jewish residents (for instance in the Jewish Quarter) and special status for holy places to Jews. This option would perhaps be acceptable to the vast majority of Palestinians, but one may safely assume that the State of Israel would reject it out of hand, just as the Palestinians would reject the first option.

The third option proposes a territorial division between the sides, with international supervision. In this option, following an agreement on the borderlines, each side is the sovereign and the source of authority in the territory allocated to it in the agreement. The territorial division of the historic basin, between Israel and Palestinians, could be executed on the basis of a wide variety of alternate borderlines, which the team lays out in the form of five sub-options:

1.The Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter would be included in the sovereign territory of Israel. The Muslim Quarter and the Christian Quarter would be under Palestinian sovereignty. The Temple Mount would be included in the sovereign territory of Israel.

2.The Jewish and Armenian quarters would be included in the sovereign territory of Israel. The Muslim and Christian quarters would be under Palestinian sovereignty, and the Temple Mount would be under Palestinian sovereignty.

3.The Jewish Quarter would be under Israeli sovereignty, the other three quarters and the Temple Mount would be under Palestinian sovereignty.

4.The Jewish, Armenian, and Christian quarters, and the Temple Mount, would be under Israeli sovereignty, and the Muslim Quarter under Palestinian sovereignty.

5. Each of the above options, with territorial division of the Temple Mount between Israel and the Palestinians.

The issues raised by this sort of division are complex, and some of them seem unsolvable at first glance. A few examples: The request for freedom of Jewish ritual on the Temple Mount, the issue of supervision of construction, human rights, preservation of antiquities, border-crossing conditions, restrictions on security matters, the scope of judicial and criminal jurisdiction of each side over citizens of the other side that enter territory under their control.

On the basis of this option, the two sides would grant surveillance and oversight authorities to an international body. The international body, which would function as an "observer," would have to examine whether the sides were in fact carrying out the directives of the arrangement.

A fourth option proposes joint management, and a division of authorities between the two sides with international backing. The Old City basin would operate as a single unit, and the sides would share the majority of administrative and policing authorities in the basin. The international body would be responsible to assume its authorities from the sides and to apply them in areas in which the joint operation would for whatever reason fail. The agreement could determine a minimal or maximal period of time upon the conclusion of which the international body would have to restore to the different sides those authorities that it assumed.

The fifth option. Similarly, based on this option, the historic basin would "usually" be administered as a single unit, although this would be carried out by the international body itself, and not by the sides. Nevertheless, it is possible that relatively small areas, primarily those holy places on which there is no dispute, would be divided among the sides on a territorial basis. According to this plan, which would essentially mean the internationalization of the holy basin, the international body would retain not only supervision and oversight authorities, but would also be responsible for administration of the holy basin, and would constitute the source of authority and control of it.

One of the more interesting questions is who would operate the international body, and here, once again, the team lays out several sub-options, such as an international organization such as the UN, a multi-national organization that would be established especially for the purposes of this task, or a country such as the U.S. or Switzerland.

The permanent settlement team of the JIIS did not give its express recommendation of any of these options, but it does favor some sort of international involvement in administration of the Old City, mainly in the area of security and preservation and supervision of the holy places. The bottom line of the new report states: "It is especially complicated to plan and put into place a special regime for the historic basin, but it may be assumed that there is no other solution that could gain the agreement of the two sides and of the international community."