A Mideast optimist

Jerome Segal lives in Silver Spring, but he spends much of his time thinking about a city thousands of miles away: the famous, troubled city of Jerusalem. In Segal's view, solving the Jerusalem question is the key to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

A senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, Segal has been active in the American Jewish peace movement for almost 25 years.


He was part of the first American Jewish delegation to meet with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia in 1987.

During the next year, he helped open up a dialogue between the United States and PLO. In 1989, he started a group called the Jewish Peace Lobby.


A New York native who graduated from the City College of New York, Segal, 62, was co-author of the 2000 book Negotiating Jerusalem. With a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in public affairs from the University of Minnesota, he brings a variety of perspectives to this issue.

This is evident in the range of his publications. He wrote the 1989 book Creating the Palestinian State: A Strategy for Peace. In 1991 he published Agency and Alienation: A Theory of Human Presence, and, in 1999, Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living.

Next year, Segal plans to publish a book to be titled Joseph's Bones: A New Appreciation of the Bible, which could offer a new way of understanding the first six books of the Old Testament, Genesis through Joshua.

Is the dispute we are now seeing just the latest chapter in a battle not only over Jerusalem but over all what people refer to as the Holy Land, a dispute that has been going on, literally, for millennia?

I don't think so. While the long historical perspective is surely relevant, the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different than anything we have seen before. It is really a conflict between two nationalisms, both of which are in many ways modern.

Jewish nationalism really comes into existence in the late 19th century after almost 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness. Then, partially as a response to Zionism, Palestinian nationalism emerges in a form that is distinct from the larger Arab national movement.

The conflict we have now is primarily - and, I would say, hopefully - not a religious conflict. It is between two nations, both of which have claims to the same land.

Is the fate of Jerusalem central to this conflict? And isn't that because of its religious significance?


Jerusalem is tremendously important to both Israelis and Palestinians, but not just for religious reasons. For both peoples Jerusalem is an essential national symbol. From the Jewish perspective, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life up until the destruction of the second temple. But Jerusalem, according to the Bible, becomes a Jewish city when King David conquers it as part of his effort to impose unified rule over the Israelites. His selection of Jerusalem is somewhat like the selection of a Washington, D.C., a capital that was neither in the north nor the south. It was part of his strategy of building a nation. Only secondarily did it take on its religious importance.

Its importance to Christianity emerges from the Jewish experience. Jesus is born a Jew and lives as a Jew, deeply imbedded in the Jewish religious community and its scholarship. He is an expert on the Torah, he debates the rabbis, he visits the temple. So many events in his life, and his death, take place in and around Jerusalem because of Jerusalem's centrality to the Jewish life of his time.

With respect to Islam, the basic point to understand is that Islam sees itself as a continuation of God's revelations that began with the Jewish and Christian prophets. Islam doesn't see itself as the rejection of the Jewish or Christian God but as the fulfillment of a series of revelations that the one God made, starting with Abraham.

For early Islam, Jerusalem is on the map because of its place in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Muslims believe that Muhammed was one night transported by God to Jerusalem and then, from a rocky outcropping on the Temple Mount, ascends to heaven. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem they built the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, and also the Dome of the Rock, the golden shrine which covers the spot from which Muhammed ascended.

It should be realized that all this historic and religious meaning is focused on the Old City, the walled city of Jerusalem, which is only about 1 percent of the current municipal area of Jerusalem as defined by the Israeli government.

It is just one square kilometer. Historically, until the late 19th century, that is all Jerusalem was. The first settlements outside of that 1 percent did not take place until very, very recently. Jerusalem was a tiny city throughout all of its important history, really until the modern era.


No matter how small the area, doesn't its importance to these three religions mean that it will invariably be a source of conflict, just as it has been for hundreds of years?

The situation is different today. During the crusader period you had a conflict between Christians and Muslims over possession and dominance in the Holy Lands, with Jerusalem as the center. Today, while the area is of great importance to Christians worldwide, there is no distinctly Christian claim for possession.

The conflict is between Israel and the Palestinians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim.

In the contemporary period, the Christian view is largely that the message of Jesus is one in which the issues of place and national dominance no longer have centrality. This is not to say that there are not plenty of disputes among Christians within Jerusalem over who has the keys to the doors of which church and things like that. But it is not an issue of national sovereignty as it is with Israelis and Palestinians.

Jerusalem remains a central issue for any future peace negotiations, perhaps the most difficult issue of all. The Temple Mount, in particular, was one of the main issues that could not be resolved during the year 2000 Camp David negotiations that Bill Clinton conducted.

Within Jerusalem, it is the walled city, one square kilometer of the city, that is the central issue. The studies that we did of Israeli and Palestinian attitudes toward Jerusalem showed that within this core, the Temple Mount is the single spot at which the Palestinian and Israeli claims most passionately conflict. The 2000 negotiations showed that outside the Old City, in the other 99 percent of the city, the conflicting claims could be resolved with much less difficulty.


Does religion so complicate the picture that a political solution is impossible?

Interestingly, the solution to it, I think, may lie in turning to religious symbolism rather than away from it. This is something I have researched and written about in Negotiating Jerusalem. One of the most promising approaches is an idea that the late King Hussein of Jordan suggested a number of years ago, that all agree that sovereignty over the Temple Mount (or the Old City as a whole) belongs to God, not to any nation. Then, having said that, you work out an administrative formula for regulating day-to-day operations.

Fortunately there is already in place an administrative regime for the Temple Mount that is relatively stable and successful. If you introduce Hussein's sovereignty-belongs-to-God formula, it takes the issue of political sovereignty out of the equation. This approach introduces an alternative religious symbol that everyone could agree on. It is the same God. Muslims absolutely believe that they pray to the same God as Jews. Allah is just the Arab word for God. So if you go to the sovereignty-belongs-to-God formulation, it suggests that this clash is not a war of civilizations but rather a war within one civilization that has different branches.

All three religions are cousins, and the walled city of Jerusalem could become a symbol of what Judaism, Islam and Christianity have in common, instead of one of the causes of their conflict.

Potentially a solution to the Temple Mount issue can have profound consequences for Islam's self-understanding and its relation to the West. The Mount's importance to Muslims is not just a matter of national, religious and historical symbolism. It is a site of active religious worship. On key holy days it gets something like 100,000 visitors, and is considered an alternative site for the hajj.

Potentially, a Palestinian state can offer a new model for a society that is overwhelmingly Muslim yet quite different from, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran. A Palestinian state could emerge as an essentially secular, Western-style democracy, one that respects freedom of religion and embraces the centrality of Jerusalem to the three religious traditions.


Because of the centrality to the Muslim world of both the Palestinian struggle and the Temple Mount itself, a secular Palestinian state could offer a very powerful alternative conception of the place of Islam within a modern society. Were the Palestinians to play this role, it would be of historical importance, and of enormous significance for the United States, because the central foreign policy question for the coming decades is going to be our relationship to the Islamic world.

Do you think 2006 will be of crucial importance to this region?

Yes. There is so much going on. It is overwhelming, really. Look what has already happened. Every Israeli prime minister since the 1967 war has been building and expanding in the West Bank and Gaza. Until this last year, not one settlement has been dismantled there. Then you have Ariel Sharon, one of the architects of the settlement-building enterprise, and suddenly facts on the ground are reversed.

Much remains uncertain. Sharon's real intentions are not fully known. He talks about having a calling to move this conflict toward resolution. And he is now staggeringly popular with the Israeli public. At the same time, he has said that he will not give up any part of Jerusalem. If this is true then he will not be capable of ending the conflict.

But if you look at where Israel built the security wall, parts of what it claims as Jerusalem are actually outside of it. What really matters to Israelis are the Jewish neighborhoods and the Old City.

With Sharon we have seen the breakup of the ruling Likud party, a staggering transformation. Probably Sharon won't be the one to conclude negotiations with the Palestinians, but if he dismantles many of the settlements on the West Bank then he will have played an historical role and have opened the door to an end-of-conflict agreement that would be reached by a subsequent prime minister.


On the Palestinian side, you had the [recent] death of Arafat and the emergence of his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is a very different kind of person, someone who is very explicit in his opposition to terror. And for all the criticism he has received, he has been largely successful in maintaining a high degree of calm.

Today there is a space in which it is possible to have a return to genuine negotiations. At the same time there is much uncertainty. Not only Sharon's intentions, but now his health, and on the Palestinian side there is the emergence of Hamas as a political party. If the Palestinian elections take place in January, Hamas may in fact be the largest party in parliament. With such a parliament, even with Abbas as president, it will be very, very difficult to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Still, I remain hopeful for real progress in 2006. Of course, I have for so long been one of the most optimistic people about ending the conflict, that perhaps I should have more self-doubt. But I remain optimistic.