Time for Creativity on Jerusalem

Periodically most nations face an "either/or" future-shaping choice. This is at present the situation of Israel regarding Jerusalem, as it must decide between readiness to creatively divide sovereignty and refusal of any compromise.

Periodically most nations face an "either/or" future-shaping choice. This is at present the situation of Israel regarding Jerusalem, as it must decide between readiness to creatively divide sovereignty and refusal of any compromise.

Jerusalem is at the core of Judaism and Zionism, more so than in either Christianity or Islam. Israel's historical right to the city also predates the rights of others. Israel is able and willing to assure full access and protection to the sites in the city that are sacred to all three religions. Therefore, it is very likely that any Cosmic Court of Justice would deposit Jerusalem in the hands of Israel under conditions that would not impair its overall suzerainty over the city. But a Cosmic Security Council would say that it is not enough to be in the right: It is also necessary to be wise and to take into account critical outcomes in the future.

The fundamental security problems of Israel are not posed by the Palestinians or Syrians, and Iran by itself can be contained. But Israel continues to face existential long-term challenges in its relations with the Islamic world. The overall strength of Islamic actors will increase significantly in the foreseeable future, even though they are likely to be fragmented politically and ideologically. And religion will fulfill a central role in most of them. Therefore, there is no real chance for peaceful relations, or even a stable modus vivendi, between Israel and the vast majority of Islamic actors if the latter are not partners in ruling the holy basin. And continued exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the places in Jerusalem that are holy to Islam will surely provoke hostilities that may escalate and endanger Israel's security.

Important Israeli groups, including some settlers on the West Bank, both Orthodox and secular, are of the opinion that maintaining full Israeli rule over greater Jerusalem is a commandment to be fulfilled at all costs. I have had opportunities to discuss this issue with some such groups. I put to them a hypothetical question, as is often found in Talmudic discourse: "Let us assume that Israel is in a situation where refusing to make concessions on full sovereignty over Jerusalem would result in attacks with weapons of mass killing on Israeli population centers, whereas a compromise on Jerusalem would assure stable peace - what would you do?"

My interlocutors have usually had great difficulty in responding, preferring instead to bring the debate to an end, similar to what happened to Rabbi Yirmiya, who in Talmudic times used to raise troublesome questions, and was expelled from the academy. But, whereas in a dispute among the sages, it was possible to leave questions open; in statecraft this is not feasible without paying a steep cost.

In my assessment, there exists no scenario that can stabilize the Middle East conflict and lead to peaceful coexistence between Israel and most of the Arab and Muslim world without Israel yielding exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem. Negotiations on secondary issues are but a delusional distraction, and are likely to worsen Israel's situation.

On the other hand, negotiations leading first of all to a creative agreement on Jerusalem - one that grants suitable standing to Islamic actors (not necessarily the Palestinians) - will make it possible to reach agreement on all other issues with full quid pro quo for Israel's concessions, including recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, defanging the "right of return," forging peace agreements with most Arab countries, establishing an Israeli embassy in Riyadh with all its psychological significance, and more.

Therefore there is urgent need for a radically novel Israeli initiative, one that would shift the political process out of the present "swamp" into a different space, with readiness in principle for a creative compromise on Jerusalem being at its center. Here lies the key to Israel's political-security future. Continuing procrastination, dithering and trying to have the cake while eating it, with ill-considered declarations and acts of "neither/nor," will carry high costs - and will, unavoidably, push Israel back to the necessity of saying "yes" at a later date under much worse conditions.

Many will claim that I am detached from Israeli political realities. True, ideological disagreements, together with coalition constraints, impose difficulties on making tragic choices, in which there is no alternative to sacrificing important values for the sake of even more important ones. But, in my assessment, the main difficulty and its resolution are in the mind of the prime minister. If he makes up his mind that a constructive compromise over Jerusalem has to be put on the table, he will probably succeed in assembling a supportive coalition in the present Knesset or win an early election. And there is a high probability that a public referendum will approve a compromise over Jerusalem if it is a component of a comprehensive peace settlement that clearly meets the requirements for a secure and thriving Israel.

There are some political dangers for the premier in throwing such a surprise at history, but when has a head of state been able to significantly influence the future for the better, without accepting risks?

Often national leaders are carried along by historic processes that they cannot change. But there are times when nations reach a crossroads in their history, giving their presidents or prime ministers the opportunity to shape their future in a significant way. This is the situation confronting Israel's prime minister today. His choice will determine whether he will be judged as suffering from the Hamlet syndrome, or lauded for making a quantum leap into a better future for Israel and the Middle East as a whole.

Yehezkel Dror, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a member of the Winograd Committee that investigated the Second Lebanon War.