Middle East

Jerusalem's troubled geography

Har Homa in east Jerusalem, file image
Image caption Har Homa was among the settlement ruled out of any compromise

The release of thousands of leaked documents apparently showing Palestinian willingness to compromise over Israeli settlements once again highlights Jerusalem's troubled geography - and damages the credibility of both sides, writes the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

Jerusalem is at one and the same time a place and also an idea. It is a focus for all three of the major monotheistic religions and has become a symbol of both Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations.

Until 1967 the city was divided, with the western part in Israel and east Jerusalem under Jordanian control.

During the Six Day War, Israel captured the eastern part of the city along with all the land up to the Jordan River. For the Palestinians and many in the Arab world this was a disaster.

In contrast, there were many in Israel who saw these events as something of a miracle. Many vowed that Jerusalem would never again be divided. In due course, Israel began to construct settlements in the territories it had occupied. Several of these were built in a ring around East Jerusalem; places like Ramot Allon and Ramat Eshkol, north of the Old City and Har Homa and Gilo to the south.

They are often called "settlements" but they look like modern city suburbs. Many Palestinians saw this construction as an effort to create a kind of barrier; cutting East Jerusalem off from its Palestinian hinterland.

So the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to allow the Israelis to keep nearly all of this ring of settlements is surprising.

Access to holy places

One settlement that the Palestinians were not willing to allow Israel to retain is Har Homa which sits astride the routes from Jerusalem, southwards to Bethlehem.

Indeed this problem of creating contiguity - the "connectedness" - of any future Palestinian State is a crucial one.

For the Palestinian Authority, settlement blocs like Ma'ale Adumim or, further north, Ariel, which extend deep into the West Bank are simply not open to negotiation - they must go.

Image caption Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (right) has denied making the sorts of offers suggested in the papers

Indeed even the ring of Jerusalem suburbs that the Palestinians are willing to allow Israel to keep would make the administration of any future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem that much harder.

While the main thrust of these documents is to show a Palestinian Authority far more willing to offer compromises than the Israelis have ever been willing to admit, the story is not entirely one of sharp divisions and unbridgeable gulfs.

The leaked documents show that in August 2008 Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was willing to break with his hardliners, accepting that Jerusalem would in some way be partitioned, allowing both Israelis and the Palestinians to use it as their capital.

This offer, made just a few months before US President Barack Obama took office, included provisions for the token return of some Palestinian refugees and on potentially the most contentious issue of all - access to the holy places at the heart of the city - interim arrangements involving Israel, the Palestinians, the Saudis and the Jordanians.

Indeed, the Palestinian side too seems to have been willing to envisage imaginative solutions to resolve the problems of access and control over the holy basin.

The losers

This of course was all more than two years ago. Since then a more right-wing Israeli government has come to power. It has set itself firmly against any division of Jerusalem. A US effort to freeze settlement building and to get substantive talks under way has also failed.

This is the context in which these leaked documents must be read.

One obvious loser is the Palestinian Authority and those closest to the negotiations who inevitably appear weak and - for many Palestinians - too willing to compromise.

Hamas - the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip - may well seek to present itself as the more authentic defender of Jerusalem in the Arab world.

The Israeli government too is probably a loser. Given the demographic realities on the ground and the growing international criticism of Israel's government, some would argue that it badly needs positive credentials on the peace front. The standard Israeli refrain that it has never faced a Palestinian leadership willing to compromise is undermined by these documents.

But the biggest loser is the moribund peace process itself. It is unclear how serious the Obama administration is about investing serious diplomatic capital in this after its recent setbacks.

The composition of the Israeli government, after Defence Minister Ehud Barak's defection from the Labour Party, if anything makes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition more stable.

In the absence of any progress, the Palestinian Authority's leadership looks to be pursuing a unilateral track: on the diplomatic front seeking recognition from other countries and the upgrading of their own diplomats; and at the UN seeking to brand the Israeli settlements as illegal.

But the fear is that shattered expectations could spill over into violence - perhaps even a new intifada - which would undo the economic and security advances in the West Bank and perhaps even call the Palestinian Authority itself into question.

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