A group of Israelis, Palestinians and North Americans have formulated a proposal for sharing Jerusalem to help the sides resolve one of the thorniest challenges in Middle East peace-making.
The Jerusalem Old City Initiative, started by former Canadian diplomats who recruited erstwhile Palestinian and Israeli negotiators as well as American Middle East hands for the undertaking, suggests the creation of a "special regime" for the Old City.
The regime would be jointly created and run by the Israelis and Palestinians, rather than an international body as has frequently been suggested in other accords that have not materialized.
"We're not talking about internationalization," stressed Art Hughes, a former American diplomat who once oversaw the peacekeeping operation between Israel and Egypt and is currently an adjunct scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute, which hosted the unveiling of the initiative Wednesday.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, who has also been involved with the initiative, explained that the special regime would be "very much under the control of the two sides. It's their baby. They shape it. They make it work."
The regime, however, would be headed by an outside administrator, envisioned as neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian, but someone with international standing. The administrator would preside over policing, movement and access to holy sites, archeological issues, zoning and planning decisions and other related issues; but not those linked to "nationality," such as education and political rights.
The administrator would be chosen by a board of top Israeli and Palestinian officials, and international officials whose presence had been approved by both sides.
The proposed regime would not seek to resolve competing claims over sovereignty or be used to make policy decisions about how Jerusalem would be shared, organizers said. Instead, they emphasized, this would be a recipe for implementing a peace agreement with a shared capital once the policy issues had already been resolved.
Israelis who participated in formulating the proposal include Gilead Sher, co-chief negotiator of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's team at Camp David, and lawyer Daniel Seideman, who founded Ir Amim. Palestinians included Ghaith al-Omari, a former PLO negotiator, and Nazmi al-Jubeh, the founder of Riwaq-Center for Architectural Conservation.
Jerusalem, a final-status issue in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, is seen as perhaps the most difficult challenge in reaching agreement between the two parties. It has already emerged as a flashpoint for controversy during efforts to get indirect talks off the ground this spring, as an Interior Ministry announcement of more Jewish housing in east Jerusalem derailed a March visit by US Vice President Joe Biden meant to launch talks.
This week, after additional prodding by the US, the sides are poised to begin the long-awaited talks. While Palestinians want Jerusalem to be addressed, along with all final-status issues, Israel has argued for broaching final-status issues only when the talks enter the stage of direct negotiations.