[Rashid Khalidi directs the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago and is president of the American Committee on Jerusalem.]
For each of those with an attachment to Jerusalem, there is a different Jerusalem, with a different sacred topography and a different meaning for each site and event. Although Arabs and Israelis live within the same city, each is oblivious to the existence of the other, or at least pretends to be. Each party to this conflict operates in a different dimension from the other, looking back to a different era of the past and living in a different present. And each party has its own name for each site, a usage it tries to impose to strengthen its possession and control.
The dispute over the opening of a new entrance to an Israeli excavation running the length of the Haram al-Sharif (called the Temple Mount by Israelis) has revealed some of these dimensions. Others remain obscure, among them the fact that this excavation tunnels under a dozen of the Holy City's most imposing and beautiful monuments of Islamic architecture alongside the Haram al-Sharif.
Statements by Israeli spokesmen make it clear that this tunnel is meant to showcase only one of the 22 archeological strata that make up Jerusalem's rich history. Such attempts to grant privileges to one stratum over others are predicated on a belief both that one layer is "superior" and that the past can be manipulated to affect the present by "proving" this superiority. Thus, if one stratum of a city can be privileged, if one set of names derived from it can be given pride of place over all others below or above it, then a certain contemporary reality claiming roots in the past can be imposed on the present.
But the significance of this crisis goes far beyond the struggle to control the outside world's understanding of Jerusalem's past, and therefore of its future. It reveals the profound and perhaps fatal flaws in the entire interim approach that the United States and Israel have forced on the Palestinians like a straitjacket, culminating in the Oslo acords. This approach dictated that explosive issues like Jerusalem, settlements and refugees be deferred until "final status" talks, while the parties build up good will through a series of interim accords.
Today, with 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis killed, it is clear that this approach has brought precious little good will on either side. Indeed, it is questionable whether the existing interim accords can be carried out at all, in view of the Netanyahu Government's evident determination to undermine them. Meanwhile, the obsessive focus on the provisions of these accords at the failed Washington summit meeting and in the press serves as a red herring, distracting attention from long-term issues like Jerusalem.
It should be obvious that until the final-status negotiations on Jerusalem and other issues begin, it is impossible to freeze the situation on the ground, unless both sides show extraordinary forbearance. Israel has not done so. This was the case under the Labor government, which frantically built housing in Jerusalem (for Israelis only - Arabs were prevented from doing so), expropriating large areas of land and crushing the Arab sector in the grip of a "security closure," which debilitated its economy.
This process has accelerated under the Natanyahu Government, which not only trumpeted its intention to refuse to discuss the status of Jerusalem (thereby violating another Israeli treaty commitment), but acted provocatively to further extend Israel's control over the city.
The opening of the tunnel was thus only the latest calculated insult to Palestinian aspirations and rights in a city which is holy to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews and which is the focus of the nationalist aspirations of Palestinians, as it is of Israelis. The Netanyahu Government hopes to use the Israeli state's enormous power and the flaws in the Oslo accords to wield Jerusalem's ancient Jewish history, as revealed by this and other excavations, as a weapon against the city's Arab and Islamic history, visible in buildings everywhere in the Old City.
Against this archeological-propaganda juggernaut, Palestinians have few defenses. Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers and cement mixers are constantly at work in the hills all around the Old City, building new settlements and thereby determining Jerusalem's "final status" in a manner far more decisive than mere words.
The objective is to insure that by the time final-status talks begin, if they ever do, there will be nothing left to negotiate. It should have dawned on American officials by now that there is little time left to avert such an outcome, which will be irrevocable and completely unacceptable to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. They should know by now that if there is to be peace, it must be based on a solution for Jerusalem whereby both sides can somehow share what belongs to both. Mr. Netanyahu's alternative, esclusivist vision, which is inexorably being put into action every day, promises unending conflict.
The responsibility for such a future will lie not only with those in Israel who are carrying out this vision both above and below the ground, but also with those in Washington who could and should have stopped them but failed to do so when it was still possible.