Who will control the holy sites of Jerusalem? Israelis? Palestinians? Both?
It's an old conundrum--and, as the latest round of violence sparked by a dispute over the Temple Mount area suggested once again, an intractable one. Now another answer is emerging. How about none of the above? Specifically, how about giving up on the idea of control by earthly inhabitants and putting the land in the hands of a higher power?
The idea of "divine sovereignty" over the holy sites was advanced this summer in a report by the well-regarded Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. The report, which was heralded by some as a creative solution and derided by others, calls for certain administrative matters to be worked out on the ground but for ultimate "ownership" to be left to the heavens.
Though it may sound unrealistic, the idea has been catching on in diplomatic circles, so much so that it was recently incorporated into the formal U.S. negotiating strategy. Reports from the round of talks held in New York during the UN millennium summit detail a new proposal that would separate the Temple Mount into three parts: the mosques, which would fall under Palestinian sovereignty; the western wall, which would remain under Israeli control; and the remaining area, including the outer wall and network of underground tunnels, which would be placed under "divine sovereignty."
The concept shifts the framework of the debate away from an unending struggle for ownership to an acknowledgement that the holy sites are outside the realm of property, belonging to no one and everyone, or, in the words of Menachem Klein, co-author of the Jerusalem Institute's report, "'neither ours nor yours' and 'mine as well as yours.'" Some American analysts are intrigued. Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant on the Middle East for the Clinton administration, finds the notion of divine sovereignty attractive because "it allows each side to yield its claim to sovereignty without acknowledging that any other side has a better claim to it."
William Quandt, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who was actively involved in the original Camp David accords, adds that the time is ripe for this kind of creative thinking. "We are at a moment where it is hard to see how the two positions can be reconciled without ..."--at this point he stops and considers his word choice--"a gimmick that allows each side to say it hasn't made concessions to the other side. The concept of divine sovereignty might be a way to defuse adverse public reaction and to avoid the appearance of backing down."
Even if both sides were to agree to the terminology, though, the specifics would have to be ironed out on the ground. Who will control security and access to the holy sites? Who will authorize building permits and excavations? Addressing these questions, Quandt sighs and admits that "the participants haven't given any clue as to how it would work... . So far, it's just words."