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