Whose Jerusalem Is It, Anyway?
Should diaspora Jews have a say in the political negotiations about Jerusalem?
The prime minister's suspicions were further inflamed by a letter from Ronald Lauder, the leader of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder, a supporter of Olmert's rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote that "[w]hile recognizing Israel's inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state, it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision." Olmert retaliated by canceling a planned speech to the WJC's board of governors.
Elsewhere, Olmert kept his anger in check. His advisers told him his attitude had alienated U.S. Jewish leaders—leaders Israel wants to keep onside. According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish-American public opinion, a majority of diaspora Jews oppose compromises in Jerusalem. Complicating matters even further, the more active on Israeli issues the Jew is, the more he is prone to oppose concessions.
So, in a conversation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in mid-January, Olmert was more conciliatory: He told the attendees he wants their voices to be heard on the future of Jerusalem. Last week, meeting many of those leaders in Jerusalem, he tried, again, to calm things down. He told them Jerusalem "will be the last issue that is negotiated upon. It is the most sensitive issue and the most difficult." And he assured them he will listen.
But the exact role of world Jews was not determined, and it never can be. Not in a way that can satisfy both diaspora leaders and Israelis. Either non-Israeli Jews have a voice and some influence in this process, on the premise that Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, or they don't, because Israelis get to make decisions related to their country, their security, and their daily lives. Olmert is right in thinking this question is nothing more than a trap. If he consults with diaspora leaders and goes on to reject their advice, they'll say he didn't act in good faith. If he accepts their opinion as a real factor, how will he ever be able to reach an agreement?
Outside opinion about Jerusalem is a complicating factor for both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, but it is also a liberating excuse. To a point, both can use "Muslim opinion" or "Jewish opinion" (and haven't even mentioned "Christian opinion"—Jerusalem is theirs, too, after all) to show how difficult it is to make the necessary adjustments. To actually solve the problem, a tightly coordinated maneuver will be needed: Olmert and Abbas must decide, simultaneously, that they are willing to ignore "outside influence" and move forward with an agreement on Jerusalem.
Should they do so? That's a matter of political opinion. Can they do it? If history teaches us anything, it's that a healthy dose of skepticism will not be misplaced. Not when it comes to Jerusalem.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.