Jerusalem: one city, two capitals for two people

No issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict is more guaranteed to evoke emotions than the one of Jerusalem

Yossi Mekelberg

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No issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict is more guaranteed to evoke emotions than the one of Jerusalem. Not even contentious and complex issues such the suffering of millions of the Palestinian refugees, the daily hardships of the occupation, or the violence both sides have inflicted on one another, can provoke so much controversy as the future of Jerusalem. Last week the trigger for another round of debate about the status of Jerusalem came from an unexpected source – a parliamentary debate in Australia. A country which is not renowned for her deep involvement in the Middle East conflict. A quite mundane debate in the Australian Parliament sparked a heated exchange between its legislators, when Senator George Brandis, the attorney-general, asserted that no Australian government of either political persuasion “acknowledges or accepts” the use of the word “occupied” in relation to East Jerusalem. The very next day, he clarified his government’s position, on behalf of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, saying that it was “unhelpful’’ to refer to historic events when describing these areas, given the ongoing Middle East peace process and that “the description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful.’’ Not many people outside Australia usually pay attention to their parliamentary debates. However, this was very different when the debate revolved around the city which is holy for all three monotheistic religions and has become a national symbol for both the Israeli and Palestinian national movements.

The constant expansion of the Israeli settlements and the building of the security barrier have made the already volatile situation in Jerusalem even more complicated

Yossi Mekelberg

Not surprisingly the response from the Israelis was one of satisfaction, though not too jubilant. They understood that this might serve as a boomerang. What seems to be a piece of good news, will inevitably highlight that most of the international community disagrees with the Australian position and with Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Still, Foreign Minister Lieberman greeted the Australian position by telling journalists that he “… applaud[ed] the Australian government for its honesty and integrity in its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He expressed his hope that Australia had set a precedence for others to follow, a hope that was more wishful thinking than actual conviction.

Setting a precedence

The Palestinians similarly fear the setting of a precedence for other countries, to take a similar position to the Australian one. Allowing for the legitimisation of the occupation, as improbable as it is, is a development the Palestinians cannot afford. Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the Australian government of neglecting their international obligation to adhere to international law, which does not recognise Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and views the place as occupied. The veteran Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi called the Australian move “absolutely disgraceful and shocking.” Interestingly enough, the Australian position does not claim that Israel has any legal right to East Jerusalem, nor does it condone the building of the Jewish neighbourhoods in and around Jerusalem, the building of the security barrier there, or the manner with which Israel governs the place. Their position refers to the semantics of the conflict rather than the legality of it. One can agree that refraining from using terminology which incites or exacerbates an already inflamed situation is not a bad idea. Nevertheless, ignoring the international legal status of a situation is bizarre and unhelpful.

Inadvertently, the Australian intervention put the issue of Jerusalem under the spotlight and its centrality to any peace agreement. For the Israelis, this is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and hence Israel as the Jewish state. The Israeli government claims that the city has never been divided, short of the nineteen years between 1948 and 1967, when it was under Jordanian occupation. Moreover, their argument goes on to claim that Jerusalem has never been a capital of Palestine or any other Arab country, hence the city should stay entirely under Israeli sovereignty. There is also an Israeli claim that for Jews it is the holiest of cities, while it is not the holiest for Islam and Christianity. This argument is perplexing when national movements create some sort of league table of a city’s holiness. Palestinians, rightly, point out a long-standing religious and historical affinity to the city of hundreds of years, let alone 36 percent of the city's population is currently Arab. The Jewish population of Jerusalem is in constant decline in terms of numbers, therefore, Israel’s insistence on complete control of the city, as with the rest of the West Bank, will lead to a minority rule over the majority.

Condemning Israel

In 1980, the Knesset passed a constitutional-like law (Basic Law), legislating that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” and the seat of all of the state’s main institutions. In response, the U.N. Security Council Resolution 478, condemned Israel for changing the legal status quo in Jerusalem and “censures in the strongest terms the enactment by Israel of the ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem and the refusal to comply with relevant Security Council resolutions…” The resolution went further affirming also “... that this action constitutes a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” A vast majority of the international community concurs with this resolution.

Throughout the Oslo years, it became apparent that without a compromise which recognised parts of Jerusalem as the capital not only of Israel, but of Palestine as well, no agreement would ever be reached. Failing to agree on Jerusalem played, no doubt, a major part in the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in 2000. The disputes can be divided to three main areas: the holy places, the Old City and the rest of the city. The most challenging and complex issues revolve around the holy places. It has led to some unconventional ideas including Divine Sovereignty over the space above Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian sovereignty on the Haram al-Sharif itself and Israeli sovereignty underneath the Haram. It was expected that the rest of the city would be divided along ethnic lines.

The constant expansion of the Israeli settlements and the building of the security barrier have made the already volatile situation in Jerusalem, even more complicated. It is tragic that the city which is holy for so many people in the world became a source of conflict and not of co-existence and a symbol of peace. There is no escape from the fact that one of the conditions for peace is guaranteeing that Jerusalem remains one city with no barriers, and will become the capital of two people —Yerushalaim as the Israeli capital and al-Quds as the Palestinian capital. The city can be divided into two capitals without physical barriers, and with shared responsibility between Israel and Palestine for ensuring the peaceful running of the city for all of its citizens. Instead of a cause of friction even conflict, this magnificent city with its rich history and culture should become a lodestone for those believe that the city should be open and free for its residents and for worshippers from around the world, who would like to promote religious and political tolerance.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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