In the early 1990s, as then–U.S. Defense Secretary James Baker spanned the globe on diplomatic trips, he made a stop in the Middle East to encourage a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. A comedy sketch on one of Israel's popular satirical television shows portrayed Baker negotiating with a pastry chef, who had accidentally taken the place of his twin brother, the prime minister. "Are you also willing to give up the icing on the cake?" Baker asked. "Yes," said the pastry chef. "The icing too."
The icing in that sketch symbolized Jerusalem, and the question that was raised, and is being raised again today, is whether jurisdiction over Jerusalem is worth the absence of peace — assuming that it is Jerusalem that is preventing a peace agreement. This simplistic view misrepresents the historic and diplomatic reality, contending that the coveted reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians depends solely on relinquishing a number of neighborhoods that are technically in Jerusalem, but in actuality have nothing to do with the city.
Indeed, there are definitely neighborhoods and villages in the hills and valleys surrounding Jerusalem that fall into that category. Sur Baher, Issawiyah and Shuafat are all places that Israel does not need, and it should not seek to impose its sovereignty on them. But what about Sheikh Jarrah, which borders on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim? Or Abu Tor, adjacent to one of Jerusalem's main roads and overlooking one of its biggest parks? Are these neighborhoods not a part of what we associate with Jerusalem — the same Jerusalem that every Jew prays to dozens of times a day?
In certain political and social circles, Jerusalem has become a black hole — a symbol of nationalism, ignorance, poverty and fundamentalism. That is why some are quick to declare a willingness to give up Jerusalem, and replace it with the rightful capital of the enlightened Zionist enterprise: Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
But Jerusalem is not just a decoration on the map of Israel, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not the Roman Emperor Vespasian with whom we can negotiate using Rabbi Johanan ben Zakai's formula: "Give me Yavneh and its sages." That is to say, giving up Jerusalem and saving Tel Aviv for the sake of preserving a sane Jewish majority in Israel.
Jerusalem is the most primal symbol of Jewish existence on this earth. It is not just an urban symbol of Jewish history, it is the greatest expression of the Jewish people's existence among the nations of the world. It is not just the rock of our existence, but the bedrock on which the entire enterprise stands.
Jerusalem did not awaken from its slumber in 1860, when the first neighborhood was built outside the Old City walls. It wasn't divided in half in May 1948 and it wasn't reunified in June 1967. It was always there, waiting for the sons who built it to return. That is why the very terms "concession" and "partition" in the context of Jerusalem not only express political separation or a retreat of our sovereignty, but also an acceptance of the transitory nature of Jewish life in Israel, and everywhere.