Israel Should Give Up Jerusalem as Its Capital

Jerusalem's 'holiness' is preventing any chance of achieving a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are about 200 countries in the world, but it seems that only two attribute holiness to their capital: Israel and Palestine (still not a recognized state, but on the way there). Perhaps three, if we count the Vatican as a state.

Most states selected their capitals because of tradition, history, culture, geography, politics and convenience. The capitals serve as seats of government, the parliament and the Supreme Court, as well as the institutions of public governance. Some of the capitals are also the countries' largest cities, or commercial and cultural centers. Some countries moved their capitals (Germany from Bonn to Berlin, and Turkey from Istanbul to Ankara), or built new cities as capitals (like Brazil and Kazakhstan).

Most capitals contain religious symbols: cathedrals, mosques, temples, but they were not selected as capitals because of these. Even Saudi Arabia did not select Mecca or Medina, holy cities to Muslims, but Riyadh as its capital. Conclusion: The attitudes attributing holiness to a city were, in most countries, isolated from the political considerations that govern and shape day-to-day life.

Perhaps it is desirable that Israelis and Palestinians consider this possibility. Jerusalem has always been an obstacle to a settlement. Now, as a tiny ray of hope has emerged for a settlement, Jerusalem is becoming even more of a problem. The Palestinians are willing for Jerusalem to be declared capital of Israel on condition that it is also their capital. Israel refuses to recognize their right to this. The leaders on both sides, not only the religious leadership but also secular politicians, consider Jerusalem not merely their "eternal capital" but attribute holiness to its stones, its homes and its symbols.

It is hard to understand how two peoples, in the modern era, are willing to die for the sake of religious symbolism of stones and places of worship. Moreover, this "holiness" is preventing any chance of achieving a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If, as expected, the Israelis and Palestinians fail to reach agreement on Jerusalem, it might be better if they agreed on the following: Israel would announce that at least temporarily it would move its capital to a different city. This does not have to be a practical move, which would involve a great expenditure of resources, but a symbolic gesture. For example, visiting heads of state will be received in a different city, and the government and Knesset meetings will be held elsewhere, too. In parallel, the Palestinians will agree that Jerusalem will not be declared their capital, and make do with Ramallah, Nablus or any other place. This suspension will continue until the wounds are healed, and there is an easing of the powerful emotions stirred by the mere mention of the city's name.

Would this mean that Israel is giving up on the Jewish connection to Jerusalem? Of course not. The religious, historic and emotional connection will remain, precisely like it did during 2,000 years of exile, which did not blur that link. Does this mean that the two sides are relinquishing their historic rights or sovereignty over the city? Of course not.

The idea is not as outlandish or subversive as it appears. Ideas were raised in the past to internationalize the city or at least do so to the holiest portions of the Old City - the "holy basin." Symbolically, suspension of Jerusalem as capital will neutralize the religious basis of this bloody conflict. For those who may still be worried, the other causes of the conflict will remain: territorial, economic, political, security and cultural.

Forty-two years of Israeli rule over a united city have not been good to it. It has become one of the poorest, dirtiest and most failed cities in Israel, a city abandoned by the secular and the young. Even if the proposed hiatus does not advance peace, it may bring healing to the dying city. And when Jerusalem goes back to being Israel's capital it will also be a city worthy of such standing, a city in which life is good.