A Beggar In Jerusalem

While eyes are on Denver, Secretary Rice has slipped into Jerusalem for the seventh time since November, in an apparent effort to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The goal is a so-called "shelf agreement," which would sketch out the broad lines of a comprehensive treaty (something diplomats and lawyers could presumably finish up).

Rice, writes Haaretz's Aluf Benn, "will have to pave the way between the contradictory viewpoints of her hosts in Jerusalem." It would be truer to say that she has to choose between her hosts' contradictory viewpoints about Jerusalem. For--make no mistake--Jerusalem is the problem, and no amount of patient mediation can advance what an arbitrator's power must. Other core issues, like refugees and territory, are not simple, but they are actually more or less dependent on a larger conundrum, which "Jerusalem" subsumes. Saying that the only problem left for the diplomats is Jerusalem is like saying that the only problem left for a divorcing couple is custody of the children.

THE PALESTINIANS VIEW Arab Jerusalem--its history and charisma--as the organizing symbol (or, at least, the indispensable differentiator) of Palestinian nationalism. They see the ancient mosques, which sit on the Noble Sanctuary, as the focus of their religious piety; many educated Palestinians are secular, but most still look to the local mosque for consolation and pride. As important, Palestinians view the city as the economic hub of West Bank towns--Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin to the north, and Bethlehem and Hebron to the south--which are really Jerusalem exurbs. Since Palestinians see future economic development as largely depending on tourism, the claim to Jerusalem is also pragmatic. Palestine without return of (read, return to) Jerusalem is unimaginable.

Most Israeli Jews living in and around Jerusalem see their city in almost precisely mirrored ways. About 65% of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem are ultraOrthodox, and 20% are National Orthodox. They link organically to new Jewish suburbs, where 250,000 Jews live, and to the nearly 175,000 West Bank settlers, about half of whom are either National Orthodox or sympathetic to their rightist parties.

Most of these Israeli Jews see Jewish nationalism as threading back through ancient texts to the birthplace of Jewish law and rites (they see the mosques as a kind of tromp d'oeil for the ancient temple). Like the Arabs, they regard Jerusalem as the hub of a state-within-a-state--many now call it Judea--whose own West Bank towns--Ariel to the north, Kiryat Arba to the south--will wither quickly if the Israeli government stops throwing money at "settlements," and while the Arab city and its exurbs become the places to which 2-3 million Palestinian refugees return.

THERE IS NO compromise possible here. Either Palestine will rise, and Judea will be thwarted, or Judea will continue, and Palestine will be still-born. Orthodox Jewish Jerusalemites feel much like traditional Palestinian Arabs on the coastal plain in 1947, when they saw Zionist towns and villages rising around them and heard leaders preparing the ground for a couple of million or more Jewish refugees.

The difference between now and 1947 is the State of Israel, however. The vast majority of educated Israelis do live on the coastal plain, thanks to the Zionist pioneers, the heroics of the 1948 war, and (let's face it) to the Naqba, what Palestinians call the post-1948 period when hundreds of Arab towns were effaced. Most Israelis, however much they value solidarity, do not really share the aspirations of, well, Judeans. Most are secular. They see their nationalism in terms of a Hebrew revival, not the Orthodox religion. They work, increasingly, in businesses that have global reach, and cultural institutions that absorb Western values. Most of my friends in Tel-Aviv and Haifa find Jerusalem suffocating and don't much visit anymore; they have no desire to see their kids patrolling the settlements for the sake of countrymen they regard as fanatic.

And yet they certainly do not want to fight Judeans for the sake of Palestinians--certainly not without strong international backing, even pressure, to do so; not without the commitment of international forces and investment to help make the lines of division in Jerusalem permeable and the unemployed of Jerusalem hopeful. They know terrorism will continue whatever happens. They have to see peace as something that means an inspiring, over-arching gain worth fighting for, a way of joining the with the world--or of not being shunned by it--not some temporary respite they get by "giving up" territory or, worse, fighting other Jews to force them to give up territory. Arguably, they tried this in Gaza--anyway, they can't go it alone anymore.

So Rice can put away her copy of Getting To Yes, and take out her copy of The Prince. We need more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. Of course, we can also wait until we have a new prime minister and a new president. But it won't be any different for them.