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The question that hangs over any future negotiations is whether the dead weight of history can be lifted sufficiently to arrive at a compromise and to preclude the often-discussed possibility – still considered remote – that the United Nations or some coalition of powerful nations would define the "final status" of Jerusalem on their own, perhaps by internationalizing the city.
Pessimism and cynicism come easily in the city, whose disposition has posed the biggest stumbling block to peace – meaning that, to succeed, aspiring peacemakers may need to embrace a broader frame of reference.
The city has long been the object of religious nationalism and proscriptive theology. But in a larger sense, it has also been a repository of the highest aspirations and ideals of the generations of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who have lived in or made pilgrimage to this holiest of cities. It is a place where the deeds of prophets, teachers, and disciples have proclaimed history's grandest moral lessons.
In the end, it may be the very concept of Jerusalem itself that will redeem the city from its long history of strife. It is a concept hinted at in its name, from the ancient Hebrew meaning "founded peaceful." It draws its essence from and bears the mark of the holy men and women who have trod its narrow streets, preaching, teaching, healing, and, in different ways, defining the exalted aspirations that make peace the city's logical final status.
The cycles of violence and recrimination that mark the history of Jerusalem and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict have been abetted by the devotion of both sides to the ethos of "an eye for an eye." Over the years, Christians have urged acceptance of the lessons of forbearance and forgiveness taught by Christ Jesus in the very streets of Jerusalem.
Many Jews and Arabs have been articulate advocates not only of mere peaceful coexistence but of something much more: the empathy that comprehends the circumstances of an adversary. And not among peace groups alone do such views surface. Several years ago, a former head of Israel's internal security service drew a burst of attention by criticizing the government's handling of relations with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. "If we do not begin to understand the other side," he said, "we will not get anywhere. We must, once and for all, admit that there is another side, that it has feelings, and that it is suffering...."
A central question hovering over on again, off again peace talks is whether this is a voice crying in the wilderness or the voice of the future.
The point, peace advocates argue, is not to sacrifice vital national interests, but to understand that no long-term national interest can be served when relations between Arab and Jew are governed by doctrines that sanctify retaliation. Weighing in the balance are powerful forces of religious extremism: Muslims, especially in Gaza, who continue to call for the elimination of the Jewish state; and Jewish extremists, concentrated in the "settler" movement, who systematically and with government support expropriate Arab land in the West Bank.
Perhaps the underlying fears of both reflect the insecure sense of national identity of Palestinians, who have never had a state, and of Jews, surrounded by often-hostile Arab nations, whose sense of national identity has always been fragile.
The apostle Paul once defined Jerusalem as "the mother of us all." It is unlikely that any peace that fails to accommodate the fact of Jerusalem's unique status in the eyes of the world can survive. History and religion have imposed their heavy, arguably unsustainable burdens on Jerusalem and on the long string of diplomats who have striven to lift it. Nevertheless, three persistent questions posed by the prophet Malachi, inconvenient to extremists on both sides, remain to be answered by all the protagonists in the long contest between Arabs and Jews: "Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother...?" Answered aright, "the joy of Jerusalem" that Nehemiah once proclaimed will once again be heard, "even afar off."
Editor's note: This is the third essay of "Peace within Reach," a three-part commentary series about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.