President’s Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to move the US embassy there, has sent shockwaves through the Middle East. After months of sending emissaries to listen to all the parties to the conflict with caution and restraint, in a single brief speech he has upended a decades long US policy on one of the most sensitive issues, indeed perhaps the most sensitive, in this flammable conflict.
How then should one speak about Jerusalem, and even more so, address it in the course of peace negotiations? Listening to President Trump’s speech I was reminded of a briefing I attended some years ago given by Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Taub on lessons that might be drawn from the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. He noted that early in the Oslo process the parties agreed that the incendiary issue of Jerusalem would not be addressed straight away, but rather would be postponed, along with other highly sensitive issues like settlements and the call for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, to the stage of final status negotiations.
Nonetheless, pointed out Taub, there were specific instances where the issue of Jerusalem had to be addressed even at the interim stage. One of the earliest of these was when the parties were negotiating arrangements for the holding of Palestinian elections. The two sides had already agreed that Palestinians from Jerusalem could “participate in the elections” but this left open the question whether this meant that there would be physical polling stations in Jerusalem, as the Palestinians demanded, or that Jerusalemite Palestinians would cast their votes outside Jerusalem in the West Bank, as Israel insisted.
Although this was a technical issue, it touched on deeply emotive core issues for both sides. A breakthrough, reported Ambassador Taub, was when the negotiators identified a strip of land around Jerusalem which had been regarded as Jerusalem territory by the prior Jordanian administration, but was not treated as Jerusalem under Israeli law. Placing polling stations in this narrow strip would enable one side to say voting was taking place in Jerusalem, and the other to say it wasn’t.
For the Palestinian side however, this was insufficient. They insisted that there be some physical voting presence within the confines of Jerusalem. In another creative compromise, the sides agreed that elderly and infirm Palestinians could cast their votes in a number designated Jerusalem post offices. This way, they reasoned, Palestinian could claim there was voting in the city, while Israel could say that since this was happening in a post office, this was really a postal ballot, and the voting was taking place elsewhere.
Even this compromise, however, didn’t resolve the issue. Now the argument focused on what the boxes to be set up in the post offices would look like. Should the slit be in the side of the box, like a post box, or on the top like a ballot box?
In the end, creativity won out. The parties agreed to construct special boxes with one edge, with the slit in it, at a 45-degree angle, so that one side could say the slit was at the top and the other at the side. Indeed, this curious arrangement enabled the elections – and subqueqent Palestinian elections – to take place.
Daniel Taub smiled as he recounted this tale. “I know it seems crazy that grown adults are arguing over such trivia, but these are actually issues that touch on the core identity of both sides. In these cases, you have to leave room for the narrative of the other side”.
This example of a a truly “out of the box” solution has stayed with me. In one way it seems childish, but in another it shows a surprising maturity, a recognition that, as one Israeli prime minister once said, “sometimes you have to compromise on your own dreams to leave a little room for the dreams of others”.
As President Trump’s team prepare to present their proposal for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort in the wake of his recent announcement, this is a message they would be well-advised to take to heart.