The Rome solution in Jerusalem

By Moshe Sasson

Haaretz

Tevet 13, 5766

The city of Jerusalem now represents two separate and distinct problems: the sites that are sacred to the three monotheistic religions and the existence of a large Arab population - at the end of 2004, numbering some 237,100 people.

In the matter of the holy places, a historical precedent exists that is wonderfully suited to the issue of Jerusalem and could serve as a basis for the solution of the problem without partitioning the city. In 1871, a serious disagreement developed between the government of united Italy and the Vatican following the declaration of the city of Rome as the capital of Italy. The dispute continued until 1929, when the Lateran Treaty established a "special status under international guarantee" for the five basilicas that belong to the Vatican, but which are outside of its territory and scattered throughout the city of Rome (such as San Pietro in Vincoli). The "international guarantee" was given to the special status, and not to the churches.

It would appear that Israel could adopt a resolution of this sort: It could declare unilaterally, by virtue of its sovereignty, that it is granting a special status with an international guarantee to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Sanctuary on the Temple Mount, as well as to all the other places in Jerusalem, or in Israel, that are sacred to Christianity and also of course to the places that are sacred to Judaism. To this declaration it should be added that Israel also grants "free passage to the holy places regardless of religion, gender or race" to anyone who wishes to visit the courtyard of the Temple Mount and that everything that is currently applicable to the Muslims on the Temple Mount will continue to apply as it does today.

Such a move on Israel's part would lead to a number of very important positive results: Jerusalem would remain whole and not divided; each of the three monotheistic religions would be sovereign over the buildings that are sacred to it, would administer them and would be responsible for what happens inside them.

International public opinion would welcome such a move and it would be an important step toward advancing a solution to the most complicated and sensitive element in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As for Israel, in the context of the stipulation that there would be "free passage to the holy places regardless of religion, gender or race," its inhabitants would be able to visit (not worship) as they do today.

Presumably Arab governments would raise an outcry against such a declaration on Israel's part, because of their interest to maintain the supposedly "religious aspect" of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result of that, possibly the Islamic states would convene to discuss the measures they should take because of this new responsibility that they have suddenly been confronted with. It is even possible that they would want to establish a small policing force with Israel's agreement to deal with issues liable to arise on the Temple Mount as well as for purposes of overseeing what occurs there on a routine basis.

If so, not only will there be no need to divide the city because of the sites that are sacred to Islam, but also we will be relieved of "the punishment of the other" and take one of the most important steps toward resolving this complicated and delicate issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As for the problem of the very large Arab population in the city: It must first be noted that the reality today is that Jerusalem is already divided between its eastern part and its western part - with respect to the level of services, the quality of life, employment opportunities, poverty and so forth. The predicted annual growth of the Jewish population between 2000 and 2020 has been estimated at 1.9 percent, whereas the growth of the Palestinian population during the same period is expected to be more than double that number.

How is it possible to overcome this problem, which over the years will transform the capital of Israel into a city with an absolute Arab majority? Even if it were possible, no one would even think of a mass "expulsion" of the masses of the Arab population from the city. Therefore, it is necessary to attract Israelis and Jewish immigrants to Jerusalem and to keep its Jewish inhabitants living there and prevent them from abandoning it. If such measures are not taken, the day is not far off when the capital of Israel will be a city in which the absolute majority of its inhabitants will be Arabs.

The author served as Israel's ambassador to Egypt and Italy.