In his recent speech laying out the Obama administration’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry outlined six principles for an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. The fourth of these principles concerns Jerusalem, which according to Kerry represents “the most sensitive issue for both sides.” Previously, this issue constituted a significant barrier to peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrating the utility of examining Kerry’s plan on this subject, and comparing it with the parameters presented sixteen years ago by President Bill Clinton. Whereas the Clinton Parameters were extensively detailed and directly addressed controversial issues, Kerry presented very general principles, which were ambiguous on every issue and offered room for maneuvering and negotiation. This holds true regarding the discussion on Jerusalem as well.

There were three central points in Kerry’s plan that dealt with the question of Jerusalem:

The first issue raised in the speech concerns the principle that Jerusalem will be “the capital of the two states.” In addition, Kerry declared that “there will be no peace agreement without reconciling the basic aspirations of both sides to have capitals there.” While Kerry was clear in his vision of Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states, he did not refer to the question of the division of sovereignty or the possible route for a border within the city. There is no reference to the principle suggested by Clinton, whereby Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would retain Israeli sovereignty, while the Arab neighborhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty. It should be noted that the Clinton Parameters did not discuss the question of a “Palestinian capital” at all, but instead focused on the issue of division of sovereignty in East Jerusalem. However, in a speech delivered to the Israel Policy Forum in January 2001, on the eve of his departure from the White House, Clinton described the principles of a future agreement, stating that Jerusalem will serve as two capitals of two states.

The phrase “capital of the two states” was a major source of controversy during the recent round of Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2013-2014 led by Kerry to formulate a framework agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to discuss a compromise in Jerusalem and would not agree to recognize the principle of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Palestinians objected to the vague wording that Kerry attempted to promote. Kerry’s latest suggestion differs from Netanyahu’s position and incorporates recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both states, but the ambiguous wording—which avoids delineating the territory in which the Palestinian capital would be established—is expected to arouse opposition amongst the Palestinians.

Furthermore, the wording of Kerry’s latest plan indicates that Jerusalem as the capital of two states will be internationally recognized. Indeed, the Kerry proposal emphasizes that this solution in Jerusalem will allow the international community to recognize, for the first time, the Israeli capital beside an international recognition of the Palestinian capital.

The second issue is the question of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Kerry’s proposal calls to protect the holy sites, to guarantee free access to them, and to preserve the status quo. These important basic principles have the support of the relevant parties and of the international community. However, even in this context, Kerry leaves several key questions unanswered and avoids outlining a solution for the Old City of Jerusalem. For instance, will an agreement entail joint management of this area, or an international regime? Kerry also does not address the question of sovereignty over the holy sites, one of the most divisive issues in the negotiations.

Kerry emphasized the importance of preserving the status quo in the holy sites, an issue with which he is deeply familiar. In October 2015, against a backdrop of tensions on the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif and increased violent incidents in Jerusalem, Kerry led diplomatic efforts between Israel, the Palestinians, and Jordan. These efforts facilitated a mutual understanding and a statement by Netanyahu, re-asserting Israel’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif and to the policy that permits only Muslims to pray on the site, whereas non-Muslims are permitted to visit there but not to pray.

Kerry stated that the holy sites are sacred to billions of people around the world and asserted that the solution must take into account the needs of all three monotheistic religions, not just those of both parties. This wording stresses that the issue is important beyond the Israel-Palestine context and possibly hints at the need to integrate additional actors into a solution regarding the Old City and the holy sites. Indeed, this framework resembles Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 to establish an international framework for the administration of the “Holy Basin,” which would include not only Israel and Palestine, but also the US, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The third issue in Kerry’s speech was his declaration that “Jerusalem should not be divided again like it was in 1967.” This principle affirms that, alongside the agreement that the city would be shared as the capital of both sides, the agreed solution in Jerusalem would not include a strict physical division between the respective parts of the city, as was the situation prior to 1967, when a physical wall ran through the center of the city.

Two points may be made here. First, this position represents the long-standing American position, which has been presented consistently over many years. In December 1969, Secretary of State William P. Rogers presented a peace plan, which stated that Jerusalem should be a “unified city” within which there would be no restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. In addition, President Ronald Reagan’s peace plan in 1982 declared that “Jerusalem must remain undivided.” President Clinton voiced a similar position in a speech on the eve of his retirement from office. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State during the second Bush administration, also reiterated this position.

Second, this position overlaps with the idea of Jerusalem as an “open city,” which has been advocated by the Palestinians for many years. The Palestinians proposed this in the late 1980s and again during the Camp David process (1999-2001) and during the Annapolis process (2007-2008). President Abbas has spoken on many occasions about his vision of Jerusalem as an “open city” and a “shared city”. The Palestinian proposal suggests that, notwithstanding the political division of the city, Jerusalem would remain a single entity under a joint “umbrella municipality” with complete freedom of movement between both sides of the city. Over the course of previous negotiations, the Israelis rejected this proposal and stated that the two states needed to be separated by a clearly delineated physical border for security reasons, including within Jerusalem.

The issue of Jerusalem is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Oslo Accords determined that Jerusalem is one of the core issues to be negotiated by the parties in the final status negotiations. It is impossible to achieve peace without an agreed solution to the question of Jerusalem, and every future serious diplomatic effort must address this issue. This will be a difficult endeavor considering the special sensitivities elicited by this question, as Kerry noted in his speech.

Moreover, the situation on the ground in Jerusalem does not remain frozen in time as one peace plan fails and new ones are presented. Since the Clinton Parameters, significant processes and moves have made the city even more complicated and explosive, ensuring that a negotiated solution to the problem of Jerusalem has also become more complicated and difficult. Nevertheless, the Jerusalemite poet Yehuda Amichai wrote that “In Jerusalem you should always hope for the good.” The positive vision presented by Kerry for the future of the city may encourage joint thinking about an alternative Jerusalem that may eventually translate into action.

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