The Ottoman Empire is seldom much lamented. I’m not completely sure that’s fair.
Sure, you might reasonably ask: What have the Ottomans ever done for us? Here’s a possible answer: In the 16th century Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent gave the world a gift quite worthy of his name, erecting massive walls of stone that to this day fully surround and in effect define the Old City of Jerusalem. They are incredibly useful still, as we shall demonstrate.
To be fair, not everyone loves the look and feel of the place. American humorist PJ O’Rourke called it “the original for every game of Dungeons and Dragons” in a chapter called “God’s Monkey House” from a 1980s book called “Holidays in Hell.” But there’s no denying its power to amaze: This single square kilometer boasts the holiest place in the world for Jews, a sort of ground zero for Christians, the holiest site for Muslims that is not in Saudi Arabia, and a tip-top Armenian tavern to boot.
I often take visitors on a breathtaking walk, approaching Suleyman’s walls from Mamilla Mall, the modern melting into the ancient as you cross the Jaffa Gate. We jostle up the alley through hagglers and stragglers, heading left from the market toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with its reputed tomb of Christ. Retrace his supposed last steps along the Via Dolorosa then pass the ancient Cardo with its excavations until finding oneself in the vastly different Jewish Quarter, soon descending stone stairs to the plaza before the mighty Western Wall. Above this icon, on the mount, sit the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Al Aqsa, which features in the beliefs around the Prophet Mohammed’s death, “Night Journey” and ascent to heaven.
You don’t have to be religious to be impressed, making the Old City not just a super-efficient hour of tourism but a contender for the number one slot in the world.
But politics, and the fear of being knifed in an twisty alley, are getting in the way.
Jewish Israelis generally insist Jerusalem is their capital and they’re prepared to pay a price. But they also mostly avoid it. It is as if they are conceding something’s distressingly off-key — in the Old City, the new, the “east,” the whole confounded thing.
It’s also the poorest city in Israel, which has to do with the economic and political calamities in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox areas, but also the partial squandering of a tourism bonanza. What a waste!
What, then, could be done?
Some people in Israel want nothing to change; they see Jerusalem as a case where total victory is the goal. Every crusade in history has felt more or less this way.
Those who want to fix the problem generally hold two core beliefs, and they stick to them like glue. First, that the status of the city will only be resolved in a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Second, that it must ultimately be divided between Israel and a future Palestine.
If the first were ever to arrive and the second were somehow feasible I would not stand in the way. That would require, at the very least, the left-wing Meretz party to win the next election with 10 times its vote total from 2015.
But what if instead the right wing wins again, as seems likely at this point? Even if it does not, and the center-left somehow pulls off a miracle, they too are unlikely to reach a final peace settlement on the Palestinians’ unchanging terms (which include an international border between two prickly neighbors running pretty much through the Jaffa Gate). Twice relatively moderate governments have failed. I hope they try again, but I’m not betting on success.
So this final agreement idea, with an “end of conflict” declaration, may take a good long while.
As for the partition-of-the-city idea, it has become an obsession among the peace process professionals.
They talk about it as if the city could be partitioned along Jewish-Arab lines. But 51 years of Israel’s machinations with municipal borders, discouragement of Palestinians from staying, and construction of Jewish neighborhoods have made a mish-mash of the map and created a Jewish majority even in the occupied-and-annexed formerly Jordanian part of the city. Almost no one (except the Palestinians) speaks of removing these east Jerusalem “settlers” as they do of the ones in the West Bank (most Israelis would be perplexed to even hear them spoken of as “settlers”).
So given the patchwork of Jewish and Arab areas any demographic division would require either a snaking border a hundred miles long or no border at all.
The former would be the strangest border in the world, with crossing points at every cigarette stand.
The latter would be a security nightmare. There will be people on both sides who will consider peace a sellout and want to disrupt it. Terrorists (from either side) could wander around at their leisure. What will happen when there is an attack in the Israeli part and the attackers slip back into the Palestinian sector by walking down the street?
In Berlin the division was political (with rather straight lines) and the ethnicity was not an issue. The natural outcome was reunification. In Nicosia the division, while unhappy, is at least clean: the north is mostly ethnic Turkish at this point and the south is Greek and there is a serious border that is not implausibly twisting. In Belfast the walls — dubbed “peace lines” — were not contiguous, seen as a blight, and are being taken down.
For Jerusalem I’ve seen bizarre proposals with bridges and tunnels and notions of layers of sovereignty and such. None has the look of something that can last. A thousand teams with maps and imaginations cannot change physics or human nature. Israeli voters sense this business will not thrive, and it is not helping the cause of peace.
Something has to change.
Focusing on the Old City is a rational way to proceed, in part because of the convenient existence of those walls.
If Israel found the wit and the will to voluntarily alter the arrangement in the Old City, it would dramatically change the game. Severing the Jerusalem problem from final status efforts the discussion could be broadened to the entire Muslim (and Christian) worlds; everybody has a stake. Craftily designed, this might make things easier, not worse.
Think of the Old City as a kind of Vatican of the Levant. In effect the Vatican is part of Rome, but officially and legally the area is ex-territorial. Still, it’s surrounded by Italy, which enjoys many of the tourist fruits thereof.
Something similar could be organized here, giving the religiously radioactive Old City to a special administration. That Old City authority could include Israel itself, Palestine, the Vatican and other interested parties: Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan can be invited to lend a hand.
The place would have its local police with all the players invested in success. Israel would be able to send troops in when necessary — but it would be much better not to do so too often. Palestinians would be able to enter through the Ramallah and Bethlehem crossings after a security check with guaranteed safe passage.
Officially it would no longer be fully Israel, but it would be surrounded by Israel as Rome surrounds the Vatican, much containing the risk.
The security price is small. The symbolic impact would be huge.
It would be electric in the Arab world, where I spent much of recent years. People there want a just solution for the Palestinians, and are rarely enamored of Israel, but few are wedded to the Palestinians’ specific demands. The “right of return” for refugees’ descendants is widely understood, certainly by the rulers, to be impractical. The issue that deeply resonates and animates is Jerusalem. And there is even opposition in the Arab world (especially in Jordan) to handing the Old City to the Palestinians only, as they would wish.
Such a change could coincide with or spark a process that includes positive changes vis-à-vis the Arab world. And while possibly separate it could jump-start or be part of a deal with the Palestinians that is not necessarily final but still moves the needle and finally gives them their state. It also can only be the beginning of something: maybe one day the city will somehow be totally divided.
Either way, it certainly would be hard for Israelis to accept even a symbolic renunciation of the holy sites. The national-religious right would be ready to burn down the house. And that’s the main argument that will probably be heard — that unilateral proposals in the Old City are not politically realistic, tarred by a radical leftist brush.
This is an important argument. But all over the world people have trouble embracing the less bad option. Rarely does public opinion clamor for something original. Rarely in history has something original been more needed. Sometimes leaders need to lead. Israel’s current leadership, whose major concern is avoiding jail time, would not dream of it. But that, to say the least, is not the measure of much.
The writer was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel.