President Barack Obama recently surprised no one by observing that the Israel-Palestine status quo was not “sustainable.” Quite so. His own Secretary of State, John Kerry, has given up for the moment on his year-long effort to negotiate a solution to this long-festering conflict. But still, nothing would help us win ‘hearts and minds’ in our psychological battle with Salafist Islamic extremists like ISIS than if we could broker a real peace between Arabs and Israelis.
I first began to grapple with this issue nearly sixty years ago when the State Department assigned me to the Israel-Jordan desk. As a newly minted Foreign Service officer, I had studied in Sweden and written a Master’s thesis on the 1919 Curzon Line between Poland and Russia. I told my boss, Ambassador Parker Hart, that I knew nothing about the Middle East. “Well,” he gruffly replied, “Maybe that’s what we need around here, a fresh new mind.”
Soon after this exchange I was posted to Jerusalem where I lived for a time in the American Colony, a boutique hotel founded by Horatio Gates Spafford, a well-to-do Chicagoan lawyer who had migrated to the Holy City in 1881. Over the decades, such distinguished visitors as T.E. Lawrence, Lowell Thomas, Gertrude Bell and John D. Rockefeller spent time in the American Colony.
As I approach my tenth decade, I know a little more, and I firmly believe that much of our “peace process” diplomacy has repeatedly failed precisely because we have always assumed that it is wiser to put off the toughest issues to the end of the process. This is a bad strategy because it actually encourages both parties—the Israelis and the Palestinians—to resist compromises in the short term because they fear in the long term they will be asked to concede their key goal: Jerusalem.
The ancient city of Jerusalem is at the core of this conflict. And so it seems there is only one road to peace and it lies through Jerusalem. The Israelis annexed the entire city after the June 1967 war and they insist that the city can never again be divided. But the international community refuses to recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and insists that the annexation is illegal under international law. The Palestinians, of course, are determined to make East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza. Without East Jerusalem, they insist, there can be no real Palestinian self-determination. Without East Jerusalem, say the Palestinians, there will be no end to the 47-year occupation.
That is the stalemate. So Jerusalem remains at the core of the problem. And yet, the international community could unilaterally break this logjam. Here is my proposal: move the formal headquarters of the United Nations from New York to Jerusalem.
The United Nations already owns a piece of Jerusalem. It is known as Government House, a beautiful white-stone building sitting on sixteen acres overlooking the Old City. Built in 1933 to house the British High Commissioner, this property lies on the edge of the 1948 Armistice Line, the so-called Green Line, with access to both Israel and the West Bank. From this vantage point, one has a splendid view of both the Dome of the Rock and the Israeli Knesset in West Jerusalem. It is just large enough to house what would be a symbolic headquarters of the United Nations. And this in turn would be a giant step to transforming the status of Jerusalem into a truly international city.
Back in 1947 the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the internationalization of Jerusalem. After all, the Old City is sacred to three major religions. And if Jerusalem acquired “international” status this would facilitate the big compromises necessary for an over-all peace settlement. An international city could house both the Knesset of the Israeli republic and the parliament of a future Palestinian state. No one would “own” Jerusalem, everyone would.
Does anyone have a better idea?