Jerusalem's Old City covers only one square kilometer, but it embodies every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Within its walls, overlapping demographic, economic, political, religious, security, and symbolic issues pose substantial challenges to even the most experienced negotiators. It is widely believed that the impasse over Jerusalem -- especially sovereignty over the walled Old City and its holy places -- will prevent a final-status Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. For such a crucial issue, the Old City does not receive the serious attention it deserves; commentators proposing plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace often simply sidestep the Old City entirely.

The January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs is a case in point. Although Richard Haass and Martin Indyk identify the difficulties in agreeing on a formula for Jerusalem in their article, "Beyond Iraq," they stop short of proposing ways to overcome the seemingly irreconcilable differences. Writing in the same issue, Walter Russell Mead ("Change They Can Believe In") focuses on the Palestinian refugee issue as the key to a peace deal and pays little attention to Jerusalem.

Many peace proposals tend to focus exclusively on sovereignty when it comes to Jerusalem. There has been no shortage of plans for the future of this troubled city, but attempts to resolve the Jerusalem issue since 1948 have always failed because they have invariably hinged on the question of sovereignty -- reducing the issue to a dispute over territory and political control. The two parties' sovereignty claims should not be devalued, but because these claims are mutually exclusive and based on such diametrically opposed historical narratives, the standard compromise solution -- shared governance -- simply will not work.

Jerusalem cannot be approached as a traditional case of conflict resolution, and the exercise of sovereignty cannot become a sine qua non for either side. Quite simply, the Old City cannot be divided between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is too small, too densely populated, too architecturally linked, and the Israelis and the Palestinians are too riven by systemic distrust for them to govern the Old City on their own. There is no evidence that the ingrained biases, resentments, and prejudices would subside quickly if leaders in both camps signed a peace agreement. The parties would not be capable of resolving their differences on their own for at least a generation, particularly when a small but significant minority of provocateurs on each side would likely seek to undermine any peace treaty. A long-term study, undertaken by the University of Windsor, in Canada, revealed that approaches such as the Geneva Initiative (the peace proposal drawn up by a senior-level Israeli-Palestinian nongovernmental group in 2003) and the Clinton Parameters of December 2000 (former U.S. President Bill Clinton's outline of the essential elements needed to end the conflict) have perpetuated exclusivism by focusing excessively on questions of sovereignty in the Old City. A different perspective is required.


The most promising alternative to a street-by-street, site-by-site division of the Old City is to construct a special regime that defers the issue of sovereignty and instead focuses on how to administer and manage the Old City with strong third-party participation. The Jerusalem question can only be resolved as part of a grand bargain. In the context of a two-state solution, fair, equitable, and sustainable governance arrangements for the Old City can be designed if both the Israelis and the Palestinians are ready to treat it as a single entity.

The key is addressing the needs of all the Old City's stakeholders: residents, decision-makers on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians outside Jerusalem, international actors with an interest in the Middle East's stability, and the many Christians, Jews, and Muslims around the world who revere the Old City's religious sites. Understanding and addressing all of the stakeholders' deeply rooted spiritual and practical needs is the only way to find a viable solution.

At its core, the conflict is about control over Jerusalem's holy sites, especially the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount; the Western Wall; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- all of which are located within the stone walls of the Old City. Most important, the Islamic and the Jewish sacred spaces of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount pose a particular problem because they overlap physically and are historically interconnected and indivisible. Given these sites' immense religious, cultural, and emotional power, they must be administered fairly and equitably. The involvement of an impartial third-party administrator -- chosen by the Israelis and the Palestinians together -- is essential, as it would build confidence between the two sides and reinforce it over time. In the meantime, sovereignty claims would not be relinquished but be deferred. This would not constitute internationalization -- an idea that both parties oppose -- as there would be no international jurisdiction. Rather, this new regime would be created by the Israeli and Palestinian governments and would be accountable to them. Such a special autonomous governance regime with a strong third-party presence would be the optimal system for the interim management of the Old City.

This Old City Special Regime (OCSR) would operate within the framework of a two-state solution and allow both states to claim Jerusalem as their capital. It would ensure fair and appropriate access to the holy sites and security for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim worshipers. The two parties would create an Old City board, consisting of senior Israeli and Palestinian representatives and a limited number of international participants selected by both sides. This board would appoint a chief administrator, for a fixed renewable term, with independent executive authority to implement the OCSR's mandate. The chief administrator would establish and oversee a lean bureaucracy responsible for issues such as the protection of the holy sites, the preservation of heritage structures, archaeological excavation, the allotment of residency and construction permits, and the provision of utilities and infrastructure. The chief administrator would also establish and oversee an internationally staffed police force, which would function under a unified command structure, with the assistance of Israeli and Palestinian liaison officers. This force would be responsible for community policing, maintaining public order, counterterrorism, controlling access to the Old City, and enforcing civil and criminal laws. Finally, the chief administrator would establish a close working relationship with an advisory religious council and the existing custodians of the holy sites; there would be an independent legal system and a dispute-resolution mechanism; and the OCSR would cooperate with national and municipal governments at both the operational and the political levels.

Given the mutual distrust between the parties and the inevitability of spoilers, any successful third-party administrator would also require the ongoing and active support of the Israelis, the Palestinians, and key members of the international community. Moreover, the OCSR administrator would require clear and unimpeded lines of authority and management, coupled with the capacity to maintain public order and react rapidly in moments of crisis.


The OCSR's legitimacy would be rooted in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and in the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians would determine the rules that guide the regime. Support from the international community, including a strong UN Security Council resolution, would strengthen that legitimacy. To work, the OCSR must focus more on place -- and critical issues of friction related to specific sites -- than people. When handling quintessential Old City problems that are politically contentious and could jeopardize peace and security -- such as maintaining the security and sanctity of the holy sites, ensuring fair enforcement of the rules that govern the holy sites today, and protecting access for worshipers of all faiths -- the OCSR must recognize that Old City inhabitants belong to larger communities extending beyond the Old City's walls and that these communities already have cultural, legal, and social structures to address many aspects of their daily lives. Most residents of the Old City would be citizens of Israel or the new Palestinian state. (Special arrangements already exist for foreign residents; responsibility for these foreigners would be transferred to the OCSR.) Israeli residents would be subject to Israeli law and Palestinian residents to Palestinian law on issues affecting individuals. Israeli residents would vote in the national and municipal elections of Israel and its capital, Yerushalayim; Palestinian residents would participate in the elections of Palestine and its capital, Al Quds. Education, family policy, health care, social programs, and religious practice would, under most circumstances, fall under the authority and jurisdiction of the national governments. Cases involving interethnic crimes would normally be subject to the jurisdiction of the OCSR criminal court.

The OCSR would generate some independent revenue through taxation, fees, and bonds. But it could not fulfill its mandate using the Old City's resources alone and so would require substantial support from Israel and Palestine, as well as from the international community. Such international support is all the more imperative given the Old City's meaning and symbolism worldwide and the threat to the Israeli-Palestinian treaty that would arise were the OCSR to fail in discharging its mandate.

The benefits of peace for Jerusalem would be enormous. A peace agreement would bring recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and the new Palestinian state: embassies would relocate there, new institutions would appear, and tourism would surge. The influx of international specialists knowledgeable about the OCSR's areas of responsibility would directly and indirectly create a significant number of new jobs. Approximately two-thirds of these would likely go to local Jerusalem residents according to research commissioned by the University of Windsor, and each new job would, in turn, fuel the local economy by increasing the consumption of goods and services.

Each national and religious community sees the Old City as the center of its identity. The sensitivity of issues pertaining to the Old City of Jerusalem, especially its holy sites, became a major obstacle in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians both at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba in 2001. Creating a special regime with significant outside participation to govern the Old City is one way to clear that hurdle. This would require great trust and flexibility on the part of both sides, but having served as the Canadian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel and the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel for a combined total of 20 years, we believe that it is the most promising approach to meeting the basic needs of all of Jerusalem's stakeholders. It may also represent the best and most realistic hope for achieving peace in the Holy Land.



Prem G. Kumar

In their recent essay, Richard Haass and Martin Indyk urge the Obama administration to promote an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, arguing that it could break the Iranian-Syrian alliance and help isolate Iran in its nuclear standoff with the West. Given the recent violence in Gaza, which has highlighted the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, such calls to focus on the Syrian track may increase. The land-for-strategic-realignment deal that Haass and Indyk envision would involve an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights -- most likely to the lines of June 4, 1967 -- in exchange for a Syrian pledge to end support for Hamas and Hezbollah and significantly downgrade ties with Iran.

But there is little evidence that the Syrian government is prepared to make such a strategic shift. Actively courting Syria with many carrots but few sticks, as during the peace process of the 1990s, is not likely to change attitudes in Damascus. Syria could improve its relations with the West while simply maintaining its current strategic orientation -- an outcome that would put no additional pressure on Iran. Instead, Washington should adopt a newly positive tone toward Damascus but combine that with the diplomatic, legal, and financial pressure needed to induce Syria's realignment.

Haass and Indyk are right to point out that most of the substantive issues between Israel and Syria were resolved by early 2000, but public support for peacemaking in Israel has declined significantly since then, which means that the bar for a successful agreement is now higher. During the 1990s, a small majority of Israelis opposed full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for the normalization of relations with Syria; today, according to polls conducted by the Dahaf Institute, the figure is closer to two-thirds. These numbers are likely to improve only if the next Israeli prime minister can point to specific and credible Syrian commitments to strategic realignment that go beyond the now-devalued peace dividend of the 1990s. But the Syrian regime and many of its subjects believe that President Bashar al-Assad's hard-line policies in the face of U.S. pressure since 2004 have worked and that the West should now engage with Syria on Syria's terms. They envisage a peace deal in which Damascus would act as an intermediary between the United States and Israel on one side and Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran on the other. Needless to say, this is not the strategic realignment that most Israelis seek.


Syria has long-standing reasons for rejecting peace on Israel's terms. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Iranian-Syrian relationship is not a tactical marriage of convenience; it is one of the most enduring strategic partnerships in the Middle East. The ties between Tehran and Damascus were forged in the early 1980s due to a shared hatred of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, were strengthened over the next two decades as Iranian and Syrian interests converged in Lebanon, and have further solidified since 2002 because the two countries have supported each other in the face of U.S. pressure. The Iranian-Syrian partnership was formalized in 2006 with the signing of a mutual defense pact and has since been reinforced by enhanced economic and cultural links. Although there have been occasional strains in the relationship, notably over Syria's support for a strong central government in Iraq and its participation in the 2007 U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace conference, Tehran and Damascus have minimized their public disagreements. In fact, Syrian officials went out of their way to emphasize that a break with Iran was not on the table in the indirect talks with Israel and that it never will be. Tehran is a reliable and important ally for Damascus, not one to be traded overnight to meet Israeli or U.S. demands.

Similarly, the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah has grown more intimate over the past five years. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed Hezbollah as a client to be manipulated in order to pursue Syria's interests in Lebanon and put pressure on Israel. By contrast, Syria's current president, Bashar al-Assad, treats Hezbollah as a strategic partner, meets with the group's leaders often, and publicly praises them in ways that his father would have found beneath him. The younger Assad exulted in Hezbollah's "victory" over Israel in the summer 2006 war, famously ridiculing moderate Arab leaders as "half-men" for their criticism of Hezbollah. Since its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Syria has become more dependent than ever on Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is the only force that can reliably ensure there is a Syria-friendly government in Beirut. It would be a tall order for Damascus to alienate the most powerful group in Lebanon by cutting off material support to it or otherwise undermining Hezbollah's struggle against Israel.


Even so, Assad does have reasons to pursue peace with Israel. Winning back the entire Golan, a goal his father never achieved, would be a major feather in Assad's cap and could be sold to the public as a vindication of Syria's hard-line policies since 1979. Damascus also has economic reasons to seek a deal with Israel. Given Syria's declining oil production and moribund state-run industries, a peace treaty with Israel could be a path to the new economic relationship with the West that the country needs. But these economic challenges are not grave enough to induce Damascus to compromise at the moment because the Syrian economy is still doing reasonably well. The International Monetary Fund predicted in 2008 that economic growth in Syria would increase and that Damascus would be able to continue diversifying its economy away from oil.

The withdrawal of Syria's troops from Lebanon has, surprisingly, also had a salutary effect on some sectors of the Syrian economy. The repatriation of assets from Lebanon and the need to offer wealthy Syrians the services they once sought in Beirut led Damascus to introduce reforms in the country's banking, construction, and telecommunications sectors, which have attracted investment from the Persian Gulf states. These changes have also kept the Sunni merchant class of Damascus -- long a potential political threat to the regime -- quiescent. Down the road, the economic benefits of peace will matter, but at the moment there are more important considerations.

Assad's main reason to seek peace with Israel is the prospect that it would bring rapprochement with the West and with moderate Arab states, which would protect his regime from external threats. Some Syrians, for example, have accused other Arab states of secretly backing the jihadists suspected of carrying out a string of bombings in Damascus over the past year. Reaching an accommodation with the United States, and by extension its Arab allies, would presumably help Assad deal with this jihadist threat.

But two questions remain in most Syrian minds: Which regional relationships would they have to downgrade to achieve this rapprochement? And how certain are the benefits of an improved relationship with the West? Given the widespread popularity of Hamas and Hezbollah among the Syrian public and Assad's frequent expressions of solidarity with these groups, it would be very difficult for the Syrian government to strategically realign itself as visibly or as quickly as most Israelis would like without risking a backlash at home.


Faced with these unfavorable circumstances, one might be tempted to conclude that Washington should wait for a more propitious time to invest significant political capital in pursuing an Israeli-Syrian deal. But as Haass and Indyk argue, the Middle East has a way of forcing itself onto the U.S. president's agenda regardless of his other plans. Moreover, the costs of a renewed proxy war between Israel and Syria would be high. To improve the prospects for peace, Washington should begin by raising Syrian confidence in the benefits of improved relations with the West.

The United States should return its ambassador to Damascus and increase cooperation on issues relating to Iraq -- widely expected steps that would serve both countries' interests. Washington should also adopt more respectful rhetoric toward Syria, while continuing to press Damascus to loosen its ties with Hamas and Hezbollah. However, the United States should realize that this may occur only as the result of a peace agreement with Israel.

Then, President Barack Obama should publicly declare his strong support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations and for Lebanon's territorial integrity and political independence. Obama should affirm that in the event of a Syrian peace agreement with Israel, his administration would work with Congress to repeal the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act -- which imposed a range of sanctions on Damascus for its destabilizing behavior in the region -- and remove Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama should also make clear that the United States is ready to deploy troops at an early warning station on the Golan Heights (to warn Israel of a surprise Syrian attack), secure accession to the World Trade Organization and other trade benefits for Syria, and work with allies in Europe and the Middle East on substantial military and economic aid packages for both Israel and Syria.

Meanwhile, Washington should quietly build leverage over Damascus on other key issues and be prepared to use it to clinch a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. First, it should continue to generously support the United Nations' Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Although Syria has grown confident in recent years that the tribunal will not charge high-ranking Syrian officials, the indictment of even low-ranking ones or their proxies in Lebanon would strengthen Washington's negotiating position. If Syria agrees to make peace with Israel and permits these indictees to be transferred to the tribunal, Washington should work with its allies and the UN to effectively offer immunity from prosecution to the rest of the regime, as it did with Libya in 1999 in an effort to resolve the Lockerbie affair.

Second, the United States should aggressively push for a broader probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into the suspected Syrian nuclear plant in Al Kibar, which Israel attacked in September 2007, and for multilateral sanctions if Syria refuses to cooperate. Although securing Chinese and Russian support for this effort will be difficult, Obama will be in a better position to try if he signals that the United States no longer seeks to isolate or overthrow Assad's regime. If Syria agrees to realign itself, Washington should then help lift the sanctions against Damascus for past violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, so long as it agrees to comply with the NPT in the future.

Third, the Obama administration should attempt to broaden its proposed dialogue with Tehran to address Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah. If it seems that Tehran is ready to cut off support for these groups, Syrian leverage over Israel would quickly decline, as Iranian aid is far more important to Hamas and Hezbollah than the support they receive from Damascus.

Fourth, Washington should work with its allies to quietly pressure Western and Japanese banks to turn away Syrian individuals and entities suspected of financially supporting terrorism.

Finally, instead of acceding to Syria's request to sponsor negotiations with Israel, Washington should urge the two countries to first engage in direct talks hosted by Turkey and only get involved when they are close to a deal. This approach would help avoid the pitfalls of the 1990s, when Israel and Syria often negotiated with the United States rather than with each other and premature summits derailed the entire process. The Obama administration should also consider establishing a contact group of countries similar to the six-party framework for North Korea, including France, Russia, Turkey, and members of the Arab League, to coordinate international support for the talks and prevent the parties from playing off their patrons against one another.

As it pushes for peace, the United States must ensure that Israel's demands in the negotiations are based on a specific and realistic definition of Syrian strategic realignment. Instead of demanding a complete Syrian break with Tehran, Israel may need to accept a peace agreement that effectively nullifies the Iranian-Syrian mutual defense pact without requiring Damascus to formally withdraw from it. This could be combined with an end to Damascus' intelligence and military collaboration with Tehran and agreement on the deployment of an international force in Lebanon to verify Syria's pledge to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Before agreeing to sponsor the Israeli-Syrian talks, Washington should seek concrete signals from Damascus that Lebanon would not pay the price of any Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. These signals could include delineating the Lebanese-Syrian border in the Shebaa Farms region (which would help negate Hezbollah's claim that Israel still occupies Lebanese territory), supporting a renewal of the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Lebanon as a step toward a full peace agreement, or accepting the Lebanese government's efforts to disarm Palestinian militants.

Getting Syria to make peace with Israel and to distance itself from Iran will be an extremely complicated task. The U.S. approach must be designed to succeed, and not just to sustain a peace process, because Iran will be meaningfully affected only by an actual peace agreement between Israel and Syria -- not simply progress toward one. But with the right combination of incentives and pressure, the Obama administration could help redraw the strategic map of the Middle East.

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  • Michael D. Bell is Paul Martin, Sr., Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor. He has served as Canadian Ambassador to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. Daniel C. Kurtzer is S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Prem G. Kumar, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer who has served in Jerusalem, in Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.
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