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Virtual Sovereignty for Jerusalem

Can Israel’s dot-coms serve as a model for how Palestine and Israel might coexist?

November 16, 2000

Can Israel's dot-coms serve as a model for how Palestine and Israel might coexist?

I was returning to my hotel after an exhausting day of touring Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus and a thriving West Bank city south of Jerusalem under Palestinian control. The bus gunning its engine at the corner of the Hebron Road on its way back to Jerusalem — and my hotel — looked irresistible.

A good thing, too, since the passengers were not about to let me pass them up for an overpriced taxi. There was still one vacant seat left on the bus and I was the only person on the sidewalk who looked Jerusalem-bound — and the bus was going nowhere until all seats were filled. As it turned out, this was a stroke of good luck given the odd conversation I overheard.

As I stepped into the van, an Israeli we will call Yitzhak said loudly to the mixed crowd of passengers: “So now the Americans propose joint sovereignty over Jerusalem. It’s their big idea to do justice to everybody’s history.”

“But it’s crazy,” replied a Palestinian — let’s call him Ahmad — who sat nearby, wearing a plain white keffiya.

“Nuts,” agreed Yitzhak. “I live in Jerusalem. Somebody with a notepad comes up and asks me if I want an Israeli passport or a Palestinian passport. I say Israeli, I pay Israeli taxes and get Israeli garbage collection. I say Palestinian, I pay Palestinian taxes and my kids go to Palestinian schools. Life is so simple for Americans. Nuts!”

“And the craziest thing about it,” Ahmad leaned across me toward Yitzhak, “they’re saying this to give everybody sovereignty over al-Quds (Jerusalem). By killing the very idea of sovereignty in its sleep! They’d be cutting it off from the land. What’s sovereignty without land?”

“Interesting, that’s not what I thought you were going to say,” said Yitzhak. “For me, who cares about sovereignty over land? I lost money on every land deal I ever did in Jaffa. Give me shares in Tel Aviv dot-coms any day. I’d even take Ramallah dot-coms! No, I thought you were going to say they could never make it work. Two governments in one place? Too impractical.”

“You’re right, it’s crazy,” responded Ahmad. “But I don’t see why it’s so impractical. We’ve had two governments in Bethlehem for five years and it’s a much better place to live than Hebron. Police have had to cooperate in the West Bank for six years. My son works in Houston. He says the Palestinian National Authority has more sympathy for Tel Aviv than the Texas state government has for Washington, but they get on as a practical matter.”

At this point, the van stopped at the security checkpoint by Rachel’s Tomb — and Ahmad sat slightly lower in his seat. Then he turned back to Yitzhak and added: “As a practical matter, it might not be so bad to give everyone in the holy city a choice between Israel and the PNA. It would make them compete, like your dot-com companies. Who’s got the better deal? It would keep the PNA honest — and make Israel less arrogant.”

Yitzhak laughed. “Here’s a pretty picture. After being a basket case for a hundred years, the land that first showed three religions could coexist invents virtual sovereignty for the twenty-first century! We might even be able to give a speech about it in the United Nations without having everyone walk out.”

At this point, an Israeli security guard asked if any Palestinians were traveling to Jerusalem without documents. Ahmad shrugged, muttered “Insh’allah!” and climbed out of the van.

Yitzhak straightened his yarmulke and tried to climb out after Ahmad but the security guard stopped him. “I want to go to the tomb,” he protested.

“Better not,” the guard warned, “kids have been throwing rocks, you’d better go back to Jerusalem.”

Ahmad and Yitzhak looked at one another as the van pulled in gear, each where the other wanted to be, then burst out laughing. Yitzhak shouted “Crazy!” through the van’s back window and I’m pretty sure Ahmad shouted back “Nuts!”