“Jerusalem contains more different versions of Heaven than any outsider can imagine,” Israeli writer Amos Oz once told the late American author Saul Bellow. Despite, or perhaps because of this, its geopolitics have posed a sort of diplomatic hell for millennia. Holy to Islam and Christianity and central to Judaism, the so-called “City of Peace” has been “destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times,” according to Eric H. Cline’s tally in Jerusalem Besieged.
Jewish Jerusalem was founded 3,000 years ago when King David took a hill town from the Jebusites. Solomon built his temple there atop Mount Moriah, on which the Bible says Abraham offered Isaac up to God. In 70 C.E., the Second Temple was sacked by the Romans, leaving only the platform known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Arabs revere it as Haram el-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), home to the Al Aqsa Mosque: Muhammed is said to have ascended from there to heaven in the seventh century. A short walk away through narrow and unchanging stone passages stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century on the spot that his mother named as the site of Christ’s martyrdom.
Other holy cities have complicated religious histories but few find themselves in the center of a modern struggle over sovereignty between two warring peoples. When the United Nations voted in 1947 to create separate Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, it set aside Jerusalem as a corpus separatum to be governed by a UN administrator. After 10 years, the plan held, a referendum could determine the city’s future—an intention that became moot when UN members failed to intervene as Arab troops swept in; East Jerusalem and the Old City fell to Jordan.
Holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank were immediately closed to Jews and, in some cases, Christians; synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. When Israel won the Six-Day War of 1967, the city was again united—this time under Israeli rule. Jews surged to the Western Wall to pray at a spot revered since the first century. As a gesture of tolerance, Israel ceded control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim collective known as the Waqf, which continues to administer the site today.
Central Jerusalem’s barbed wire and concrete walls are gone. But divisions persist: Jews rarely cross into Arab sectors and, although Jerusalem’s Arabs move fairly easily within Jewish neighborhoods and shopping districts, both groups go home to sleep among their tribal brethren. The boundaries of Jewish neighborhoods—or “settlements,” as they’re often called when they encroach on West Bank land—seem gerrymandered to exclude Arabs from Jewish community services and institutions. Resident Arabs at all levels of society describe unequal economic opportunity and inferior city services; but most also decline to vote in municipal elections, considering participation a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty. At the same time, among Jews, West Jerusalem has taken on an increasingly Orthodox character as the young and secular decamp to other Israeli cities.
Despite passionate promises by political and religious leaders on both sides never to cede their claims to the Holy City (and official Israeli insistence that the city’s future be treated as a “final status” issue in U.S.-brokered peace negotiations), Jerusalem has been part of peace discussions since 2000. As part of non-binding talks at Camp David, Israel’s then prime minister Ehud Barak quietly broached the possibility of creating two capitals there, “Yerushalaim” for Jews and “Al Quds” (the Holy) for Arabs. Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected the plan, the Second Intifada began and in February 2001, Barak’s government fell. No Israeli politician dared touch this “third rail” again until October 2007, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—boldly or foolishly, depending on the point-of-view—suggested that Jerusalem could be divided in a peace settlement.
Under political pressure, Olmert has backtracked, but public opinion polls on both sides show fatigue with hard-line policies and a resigned awareness that sacrifices—of land, of rights, of historic claims—will have to be made for peace to come.