The Jerusalem Question

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

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Barak and Arafat

Following the tenure of Netanyahu, the Labor party returned to power, determined to make up for the time and trust that had been lost. In July of 2000, Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Yasser Arafat and American President Bill Clinton to discuss final status issues. The future of Jerusalem figured prominently in their discussions, and, as the days wore on, became an impassable source of disagreement.

On day seven, the American delegation proposed a plan that ran along similar lines to the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement but offered specific ideas regarding the Old City. According to this proposal, the Old City would be under Israeli sovereignty but administration of the Jewish and Armenian quarters would fall to Israel while administration of the Muslim and Christian quarters would fall to the Palestinians, and that the Haram al-Sharif would be under Israeli sovereignty but with Muslim (eventually Palestinian) control, with a Palestinian flag flying over it but equal prayer rights for Jews. Prime Minister Barak indicated that he would be ready to enter into such an agreement, but Yasser Arafat refused.

President Clinton, undeterred, came forth with an even more far-reaching proposal, offering functional Palestinian jurisdiction in some of Jerusalem's internal neighborhoods and full sovereignty in neighborhoods on the periphery. Still Arafat was unsatisfied. "The Egyptians got back every last inch of Sinai," he is said to have asked, "why should I give up Jerusalem?"

Of course, Jerusalem was not the only issue on the table. The division of the West Bank and the access to important water supplies contributed to Arafat's decision. Arafat was often blamed for the failure of these negotiations--even by Clinton himself--but Beilin was among those who rejected this view. "The mistake was to put all the blame on Arafat, not only because he did not deserve it," Beilin said. "Maybe he  deserved part and maybe it is true that the Palestinians did not initiate ideas, but itwas a tactical mistake to put all the blame on one side."

Trying Again

Six months later Clinton, weeks from the end of his term, the al-Aqsa Intifida already begun, brought together an Israeli delegation and a Palestinian delegation and tried once more for a peaceful resolution. According to this plan, Palestinians would be given sovereignty over Palestinian areas and Israelis would retain sovereignty over the Israeli areas. This would apply to the Old City as well, with the Palestinians controlling the Haram al-Sharif and the Israelis controlling the Western Wall and its associated sacred areas. Barak agreed to the proposal, with the exception of those parts of it pertaining to the Temple Mount. Arafat, however, once again said no. By this point it made no difference--both Israeli and Palestinian public support for the process had been lost.

The years of the Second Intifada conflict were bloody and disheartening. But the death of Yasser Arafat and the emergence of Kadima seemed to create new hopes for peace. Then, with Netanyahu’s appointment to Prime Minisiter in 2009, the status of Jerusalem again seemed to be off the bargaining table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem is not up for debate. Still, should the negotiations about Jerusalem’s status resume, there are several possibilities for Jerusalem's future: divided sovereignty over the entire city, favored by the Palestinians; Israeli sovereignty with concessions in the West Bank, proposed during Netanyahu's first tenure; the Borough System, first proposed by former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek almost thirty years ago, which gives greater administrative powers to administrative councils, granting the Palestinians substantial autonomy while ensuring continued Israeli sovereignty and; limited Palestinian sovereignty, along the lines of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan.   

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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