Amid Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks, Signs of Compromise Over Jerusalem

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

An Israeli soldier sleeps as ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths pray on Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, July 16, 2013.

A member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government created something of a stir this week when he could not foresee any peace agreement with the Palestinians that wouldn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, as well as of Israel.

Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, Netanyahu’s biggest coalition partner, made the comments earlier this week in a Tel Aviv “pub talk” hosted by the left-wing group Peace Now. Many in the Israeli media jumped on the fact that Shelah — a former journalist like his friend and party founder Yair Lapid — seemed to be endorsing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that contradicts the party line, as well as that of Netanyahu’s Likud.

“Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” the Yesh Atid party wrote in its founding declaration of principles, “because Jerusalem is not just a place or a city, but the center of the Jewish-Israeli ethos and the holy place for which Jews longed throughout all generations.”

In an interview with TIME, Shelah says he was offering frank analysis more than opinion.

“A solution in Jerusalem will be a solution of words, no less than a solution of deeds. That is, it will be conceptual much more than physical,” says Shelah, also a respected author who lost an eye in 1983 as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon.

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“Somewhere within the borders of Jerusalem, we’ll have to say, this side is Israeli and this side is for the Palestinians. I’m not saying it’s not complicated or that I have the right formula in my pocket, just waiting to take it out. But I don’t think the Palestinians would ever agree to a peace deal that would not see East Jerusalem as their capital. And I’ve said, as Yesh Atid has, that we see the need to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and that is in our foremost interests.”

Jerusalem is considered one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which restarted Aug. 14 after a three-year stalemate, with envoys of the Obama Administration acting as both cheerleader and referee. Since the launch of the talks, the two sides have met three times, and then had an additional, unannounced meeting on Thursday. Both sides have kept mum on whether progress has been made, saying only that the talks were serious and substantive. The parties will meet in the West Bank town of Jericho next week.

The Palestinian negotiating team holds that every part of the city that was in Jordan before the Six-Day War of 1967 should be the capital of their future state. The Israeli government’s position is that the unified city is its eternal, indivisible capital, and it contests that only under Israeli sovereignty have the Old City’s holy sites — precious to Judaism, Christianity and Islam — been safe and open to all.

Reading between the lines, however, many Israelis have been gradually coming around to the idea that a peace agreement probably means a shared Jerusalem, though most don’t want a physically divided city. In the latest monthly Peace Index conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Democracy Institute, pollsters found that about half of the Israeli Jewish public would be prepared to cede Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority as part of a permanent settlement to the conflict. That was far more flexible than most Israelis were willing to be on other contentious issues, like the Palestinian demand for the “right of return” to land they — or their grandparents — left in 1948 in the war over Israel’s creation.

(MORE: On the Eve of Talks, Israeli and Palestinian Negotiators Get Ready for an Unlikely Deal)

“For a couple of years now, we’re seeing that Israeli Jews in many respects have come to terms with the fact that Jerusalem is already divided,” says Tamar Hermann, the co-director of the Peace Index, which has been tracking trends in public opinion on the conflict since 1994, a year after the Oslo accords were signed.

Following the second intifadeh, which started in September 2000, Israelis began to completely avoid East Jerusalem, Hermann says, and attitudes toward Jerusalem therefore began to change in past seven or eight years. “Israelis might aspire for the whole city to be part of a unified Jerusalem, but it is already looked at as something which is not ours,” Hermann adds. “People are less sensitive on that issue than they once were, except for the holy basin and the Temple Mount” — the area that houses the Western Wall as well as the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, holy sites for Jews and Muslims.

“This issue, which in the past was total taboo, no longer is,” Hermann offers. “But this doesn’t mean that negotiations will say Jerusalem isn’t a problem, because it is.”

Not surprisingly, though, not all Israelis think alike. Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to agree with the idea of turning Arab neighborhoods over to a Palestinian capital, but the segment of the population known as national-religious Jews — and the ideologically linked settlement movement — do not. That is the group represented by Netanyahu’s other major coalition partner, Naftali Bennett and his Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s lead negotiator in the talks, on Thursday described the party’s presence in the ruling coalition as “deeply problematic.”

In the 2010 talks, Palestinian negotiators also showed flexibility on Jerusalem, according to a WikiLeaks report that came out afterward. The papers indicated that Palestinians were willing to cede claims on areas of Jerusalem that Israel has since built up with what Palestinians consider to be settlements but which Israelis view as neighborhoods.

These signs of pragmatic thinking on both sides boost the prospect of meaningful dialogue. But would-be peacemakers have almost reached agreement before, only to find that one side or the other couldn’t go the extra mile and take the necessary political risks. Jerusalem, that ancient city that has the ability to conjure passions like virtually no other, still could potentially get in its own way.

MORE: Palestinians Say Israeli Decision on Settlements Will Hurt Peace Talks