How, if at all, has the Jerusalem question been affected by President Obama's great speech of Cairo, by the elections in the Lebanon, and by the astounding mass protests in Teheran that have been hailed as the harbingers of a second Iranian revolution? -- In his widely noted recent speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his support of the two-state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As also widely noted, he attached so many unacceptable conditions to it that the spirit of the speech contradicted its letter. One of the conditions he made that would need to be met for him to accept Palestinian statehood was for the Palestinians to recognize Jerusalem as the eternally undivided capital of Israel. It is clear that this position is unacceptable for Palestinians and it is clear that Netanyahu knows this. Hence the impression that his concession on the question of Palestinian statehood was disingenuous.
On the other hand, there are reasons to see in Netanyahu's speech more than a closing of the door to peace by a closed-minded representative of the Israeli right. For one, Netanyahu correctly represented what is a widely shared Jewish sentiment concerning the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is of symbolic value to the Jewish nation, even though it is a pain in the neck from any rational political or urban planning point of view. There is no doubt that, politically speaking, the city remains ungovernable as long as the Israeli national sentiment insists on squaring the circle of holding on to an undivided Jerusalem while pursuing Palestinian statehood. So what is good about Jerusalem's reemerging as a bone of contention?
I believe that Hussein Agha and Robert Malley have it right in their essay of 11 June 2009, published in The New York Review of Books, where they argue that the crux of the matter, at least for the Palestinians, is not so much statehood as such, at least at this point, but the question of national interest, a question that is strangely undermined by the Israeli and international pressure to pursue the so-called two-state-solution.
As Agha and Malley argue, the larger symbolic issues on both sides of the conflict may be more central to solving it than the tried and failed negotiations over (or the imposition of) Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. For the Palestinians, this includes the matter of the return of the refugees. For the Israelis, whether we like it or not, it includes a stubborn insistence on the historic right of the Jews to the Holy City.
I admit, I find it odious to read pronouncements of the sort recently published in an opinion piece in the English edition of Haaretz by Nadav Shragai, a piece that proudly pronounces that "Jerusalem is ours". But the sentiment this piece expresses is as true as the Palestinian sentiment concerning the land of Palestine, concerning the legitimacy of the rights of refugees to return to their land, and concerning the sense, derided by Nadav Shragai, that Jerusalem, or rather Al Quds, is and should remain an Arab city.
Sentiments of this sort and how to deal with them is, according to Agha and Malley, more important than whether or not a "humdrum" two-state-solution is imposed on Israelis and Palestinians any time soon. Netanyahu has, at least, articulated views that, while beyond the pale from the liberal and western point of view, captured the sentiments of the right-wing and the religious sector of Israeli society and it did so without completely closing the door to a negotiated settlement. Negotiations need to take into account the sentimental aspects of this conflict, too. In this sense, Netanyahu's speech may not have been a complete waste but rather a reminder of the more complicated issues that both sides will bring to the table once serious negotiations resume.
So has anything changed in Jerusalem since Obama's speech in Cairo, elections in the Lebanon, and the ongoing second Iranian revolution? There has been movement. Though falling short of the standards established by previous Israeli administrations, including those of Sharon and Olmert, Netanyahu has moved the last bastion of the Israeli right beyond the tabu of even mentioning the possibility of a negotiated settlement that considers the Palestinians as a nation that deserves its own state within the historic boundaries of what pious and right-wing Jews like to call Eretz Yisrael. This may not look like much but it actually was a huge concession on Netanyahu's part. But there must be action to follow such pronouncements. If Agha and Malley are correct, some of this action must come from the Palestinians themselves and it needs to be in keeping with their collective national sentiments rather than being perceived as a mere response to foreign, non-Palestinian interests, be they the interests of Washington, Cairo, Beirut, Teheran, or those of the Israelis. Of course we all hope that this initiative, when it is taken, will be a constructive one.