The Jerusalem Question

A brief history of the role of Jerusalem in the peace process.

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The modern-day Arab-Israeli peace process began, in effect, with the Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt in 1978. During these talks Jerusalem emerged as a key issue.

Indeed, disagreement over Jerusalem, including Egyptian demands that Israel restore Arab sovereignty to all of East Jerusalem, almost destroyed the chances for Egyptian-Israeli peace.  In the end the U.S. Secretary of State was able to keep the talks on track, however, by proposing that the official agreement make no mention of Jerusalem but be accompanied by three side letters--one from American President Carter, one from Egyptian President Sadat, and one from Israeli Prime Minister Begin--stating their countries respective positions. This compromise provided for an Egyptian-Israeli peace while offering the Egyptians an opportunity to save face in the Arab world and enabling the Israelis to keep Jerusalem off the bargaining table.

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Jerusalem on the Table

In President Ronald Reagan's 1982 peace initiative, the American president proposed that the status of Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations, a harbinger of the changing rules of engagement. Over the next several years, unrest grew in Gaza and the West Bank, and Intifada rioting would eventually spread to East Jerusalem, which was becoming increasingly important as a Palestinian cultural and political center.

In 1988, King Hussein of Jordan declared his intention to disengage from the West Bank. In that same year, the Palestinian Liberation Organization announced the establishment of the State of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of the state of Israel. As Mayor Teddy Kollek put it, "the situation in Jerusalem has changed in a fundamental way." Jerusalem was on the table.

Madrid, Oslo, and Beyond

In October 1991, the United States and the U.S.S.R. convened the Madrid Conference for Peace in the Middle East. Palestinians attended the conference as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, which the Israelis were promised would not formally include representatives of the PLO. The bilateral meetings that took place between the Palestinians and the Israelis, however, developed into the secret Israeli-PLO negotiations in Oslo. These would lead to the historic signing of a Declaration of Principles in Washington, D.C. in September 1993 by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and an unsmiling Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The Declaration of Principles contained concessions from both sides--while Jerusalem would not be included in interim Palestinian self-governing agreements, Jerusalem Palestinians would nonetheless be permitted to vote in the elections for the Palestinian Authority, and it was agreed that the Jerusalem question would be reintroduced during the permanent status negotiations, scheduled to begin in 1996.

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Lili Kalish Gersch

Lili Kalish Gersch is Director of Literature, Music & Dance at the DCJCC. She was the Managing Editor of