I basically agree with Andrew Sullivan on Israel/Palestine issues. But he keeps writing things that are just a bit off point. Sometimes, these small mistakes lead to significant errors in the thrust of what he’s saying. For example, today he characterizes Dennis Ross as “a fervent believer in Israel’s eternal control of all of Jerusalem (meaning a two-state solution will never happen).” He backs this up with an interview Ross gave to the Jerusalem Post in 2008:
You raised the issue of Jerusalem. That was at the AIPAC speech. And what [Obama] said, he said the following: “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.” He said the city should never be divided again. And it’s true that in that speech he didn’t make the third point, which is, the final status of the city will be resolved by negotiations. Before the speech he said that, after the speech he said that. The American position has been those three points. The fact of the matter is, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that the city should not be divided again. That’s also a fact. The position of the United States since Camp David, the position, by the way, adopted in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, signed by [prime minister] Menachem Begin, was that the final status of Jerusalem would be resolved by negotiations. Those are the three points. That’s what his position is.
I have no idea what the problem is supposed to be with what Ross said here. He’s expressing the same diplomatically carefully line the US has always expressed on Jerusalem. The deal with Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestine conflict is that it combines the unbelievably tedious niggling details of a Brooklyn zoning dispute with the murderous desperation of the Bosnian religious-ethnic civil war. This is a difficult needle to thread, and the US has a formula for threading it, which involves fudging words like “Jerusalem” and “undivided” so they can mean different things to different people.
Here’s the deal: Israelis consider Jerusalem to be their capital. The US has no problem with the idea that West Jerusalem, where the Knesset and Prime Minister’s offices are located, is the capital of Israel, but it doesn’t want to embrace the idea that East Jerusalem is included in that designation. East Jerusalem needs to become the capital of a future Palestinian state, because the Palestinians insist on being able to say that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. So the Americans can embrace the statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, without expressing the caveat that they mean West Jerusalem, as that would piss off the Israelis. They can also agree that Jerusalem will be the capital of an eventual Palestinian state, without needing to specify “East Jerusalem”, as that would piss off the Palestinians, and in any case the Palestinians have no interest in trying to claim West Jerusalem.
The next requirement for American policy is to avoid any suggestion that Jerusalem will ever be divided by a hard border with fences and checkpoints. This is unacceptable to the Israelis because, during the 1948-67 division, Jewish residents were expelled from the Old City (which was occupied and then annexed by Jordan) and Jews could not access the Western Wall. It’s probably unacceptable to Palestinians as well, since any hard border drawn today would run through the Old City so as to keep the Jewish Quarter on the Israeli side; that would put the main entrance to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa mosque across a border inside Israeli territory. Basically the whole idea is a nightmare, and nobody is considering it. The statement “Jerusalem should not be divided again” refers to this consensus. In this way, the US manages not to disagree openly with Israelis who expect to solidify Israel’s illegal and unrecognized annexation of East Jerusalem, but in fact what the US means by “undivided” is left ambiguous, in terms of sovereignty issues, to leave room for ultimate Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the Old City.
The point here is that for Dennis Ross to say “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and Jerusalem must never again be divided” is not the same as saying “Jerusalem cannot be the capital of an independent Palestine.” The US envisions a future in which Israel considers Jerusalem its capital and has sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods, Palestine considers Jerusalem its capital and has sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods, there are no hard barrier walls dividing the city, and security and other municipal arrangements are worked out in negotiations. Sullivan needs to grant more credit to the complexity of these negotiations and of the history of the dispute, and the ambiguity people need to embrace to arrive at formulas that will allow negotiations to go forward.
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