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US cannot paper over the sensitivities of Jerusalem

Ever since the current Palestinian-Israeli peace process became news again with the Trump administration’s grand “ultimate deal,” the issue of Jerusalem loomed as a major stumbling block. The problems with Jerusalem stem from the fact that Trump’s team has bound itself to impossible commitments made to the Christian Zionists who are totally removed from the reality of the region. 
The Trump administration has indicated that the president will most likely sign a waiver extending the delay on moving the US Embassy but that he will be speaking about the issue of Jerusalem in the coming days.
Initially it seemed that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the lead US policy maker, and other supposed level-headed advisers told the US president to keep Jerusalem out of the discussions. Washington even apparently succeeded in avoiding the dangerous “Greater Jerusalem” Israeli plan that would have scuttled the talks.
However, the Trump administration’s earlier thoughts of keeping Jerusalem out of the framework agreement appear to have been reversed by the weakening state of Kushner and the rise in power of Trump’s base and those of his Christian Zionist vice president Mike Pence. 
What Washington will see and what has already transpired is a collective Arab rejection of the Trump policy regarding Jerusalem. This Arab flurry over Jerusalem brings back memories of what happened in the summer, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians protested against the installation of metal detectors outside Al-Haram Al-Sharif, Islam’s third-holiest mosque.
A trip down memory lane would also enlighten American officials who think that they can easily paper over the sensitivity of the city of Jerusalem.
During the 2000 Camp David summit that included US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the issue of Jerusalem was the focus of attention. Then, as now, Jerusalem — and not the refugee issue, as was reported by some — was the deal breaker. Arafat adamantly refused to compromise on Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and especially the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. Under pressure, he suggested that he talk to Arab leaders while still in Camp David. With every leader he had a simple question to which he knew the answer to: “Do you agree to any deal that doesn’t include East Jerusalem?”
The negotiations over Jerusalem are generally separate from the border discussion, even though in Palestinian eyes East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian independent state under the 1967 borders that the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized. When Israelis discuss borders and possible land swaps, they are always referring to the West Bank minus Jerusalem, which Israel annexed, insisting that a unified Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of Israel.”

Any attempt by the Trump administration to gloss over long-running issues surrounding the occupied city will most likely blow up the entire peace process.

Daoud Kuttab

In dealing with the Jerusalem problem, three issues need to be resolved. What happens to the various neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that have been heavily settled by Israel since 1967? Almost as many Israeli Jews as Palestinians now live there. The second issue of contention is the status of the one square kilometer that is within the walled area of the Old City of Jerusalem. This area includes the Jewish quarter, and Palestinian negotiators have said that they are fine with that specific area being part of Israel. The third bone of contention is the status of the holy places of Jerusalem, which are the cradle of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
These areas of contention have been addressed in study after study and in tens of proposals on how best to resolve them. From the concept that sovereignty should reside with God and that the issue should rather be how the city is administrated, to the idea that in the contentious area around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Palestinians have sovereignty over anything above ground while Israel has control over anything below ground, where they claim the remnants of the destroyed second temple exists.
In what is referred to as the Clinton Parameters, the former US president suggested that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem will be part of the Palestinian state, while the Jewish neighborhoods belong to Israel. The city should be united and open to all as well as its holy places, while the holy places in the Old City be administered by an international consortium of sorts.
Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, has stipulated in Article 9 that “Israel recognized the special role of Jordan in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem and committed itself to give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines in negotiations on the permanent status.”
Any attempt to gloss over this issue will most likely blow up the entire peace process.
What the newest group of US officials dealing with the Middle East’s most difficult conflict must learn is that Jerusalem is not simply an issue that can be resolved only with Palestinians. It is an Arab and Muslim issue which millions of people care about.
Leaders of the Muslim and Arab world are not going to allow an issue that has become well engraved in international law to be changed simply to satisfy the desires of a particular voting group in the US.
The issues in Jerusalem can be resolved if the current government accepts the basis of the two-state solution and then Israel can have its capital in West Jerusalem, while East Jerusalem can be the capital of Palestine. Any tinkering with this accepted international formula will produce unwanted results.
• Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist. Twitter: @daoudkuttab