06/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama on Jerusalem: Why the Fuss?

Barack Obama's speech to AIPAC on Wednesday was a hit. Contrary to predictions that the AIPAC crowd would receive Obama coldly, he was met with enthusiasm. A friend who was in the room said, "Obama was a huge hit. The college kids in particular went crazy. But all the people I saw seemed to want to be part of Obama's historic journey."

John McCain also scored with the AIPAC members. That is less newsworthy because McCain has not been the target of a vicious and libelous smear e-mail campaign within the Jewish community.

While the crowd inside the Washington Convention Center was pleased by Obama's speech, a lot of people outside the room were not. One phrase in particular was a turn-off for the critics. It was Obama's reference to Jerusalem as "the capital of Israel" which "must remain undivided." The statement was widely criticized as pandering, particularly by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post. Other critics said that Obama's position would doom Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because if the city is to remain undivided, there is nothing to negotiate about.

Pandering? Obviously Milbank has not attended very many speeches in which politicians really pander to a Jewish audience. If he had, he would know that panderers do not endorse the peace process and do not call for high-level US involvement to advance the two-state solution. Instead they routinely bash Palestinians as terrorists -- getting their audiences to their feet by using the "never again" mantra as justification for hanging on to the territories and, even more, the status quo.

That is not what Obama did. I don't believe he ever has. Nor, to its credit, did his audience hold back in its applause, waiting for the "red meat" that never came.

Times are changing.

Obama emphasized that he will make negotiations a priority. "We can and we should help Israelis and Palestinians both fulfill their national goals: two states living side by side in peace and security." He pointedly said that he would not wait seven years before becoming personally involved in advancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward the two-state solution.

His determination to promote negotiations was unambiguous.

Nonetheless, Obama's critics insist that a President cannot advance negotiations while simultaneously pledging that Jerusalem must remain undivided.

I certainly hope that he can, because I do not believe that Jerusalem will ever again be physically divided. Nor do I believe that it should be. Perhaps I'm naïve but, for me, the idea of dividing cities and peoples in an effort to achieve peace is oxymoronic. Peace requires removing walls, not building new ones.

That is why I never liked the whole idea of unilateral disengagement. Disengagement failed because it was accomplished without negotiating with Palestinians or even consulting with them. It was as if the Palestinians didn't matter. They would take whatever Israel gave them.

It didn't work out that way. The Israelis pulled out and Hamas havoc followed. As many of us predicted, only a withdrawal negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas would have been likely to succeed. (It might even have prevented Hamas' rise to power.) One thing is certain, the results of a negotiated withdrawal could only be better than those of a unilateral withdrawal -- the onslaught against Sderot and the walling off of a million Palestinians.

Obama knows that Jerusalem is one of the "final status" issues on which Israelis and Palestinians must reach agreement if there is to be peace. He also knows, as everyone does, that without an agreement on Jerusalem, peace cannot be achieved.

But he understands that peace should not require the physical division of Jerusalem, but rather the sharing of it. That means, as President Clinton envisioned, that East Jerusalem would revert to Palestinian control while West Jerusalem would remain Israeli. Special arrangements would be made for the holy sites.

That can be done while maintaining the physical unity of the city, i.e., no walls. Yes, that will require ingenuity. But, even more, it requires will and imagination.

There are those who argue that it is unrealistic to expect Israelis and Palestinians to share the city and that security for both peoples can only be ensured by separation.

I don't buy it. Envisioning Israeli-Palestinian peace these days is in itself an act of hard-headed faith. So is imagining that the settlements will come down and that Palestinian militants will accept the right of Israelis to live in what these militants consider to be Palestine. An agreement based on cold "realism," on the premise that the only way to ensure security is through physical separation is doomed to fail.

I have to admit that I have strong feelings on this subject. I made my first trip to Israel in 1968, exactly a year after the reunification of the city. I was with a Jewish student group and we spent a few months at the Rivoli Hotel on Salah-al-Din Street. Salah-al-Din Street is East Jerusalem's Main Street. Just outside Herod's Gate, adjacent to the Damascus Gate, it is the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem. I think we were the first Jewish group ever housed there. We may also have been the last.

Back in 1967, the hope was that Jerusalem would become one city after 19 years of division. But, in the years since, the two sectors have grown further apart. One of the new Israeli highways practically cuts the city in two and it is physically more difficult to move from one side to the other today than at any time since 1967. Whenever I'm in Jerusalem, I walk over to Salah-al-Din to see my old haunts. Other than cops and the occasional soldier, there are few Israelis to be seen. Palestinians don't venture up the hill to the other side much either.

Peace will be achieved not by further division but by the real unification that will be produced when undivided Jerusalem serves as the shared capital of two countries. Dividing it with walls and checkpoints would tear the heart out of the city. Sharing it would save its soul.

Jerusalem is very much on the negotiating table. As Obama said on CNN after the speech, "Obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be a part of those negotiations."

But, he added, "Israel has a legitimate claim on that city." That is absolutely right.

I think the Obama AIPAC speech, and his warm reception there, will make the task of the e-mail smear artists more difficult. But I don't think they are going to stop peddling their lies.

Nor will Obama be the only target. John McCain will also receive his share of smears. Every four years Israel becomes a political football kicked around by partisans of the respective candidates.

Ideally, however, the issue will move off center stage. Both candidates are pro-Israel. And both are, even more than that, committed to advancing the security of the United States.

That requires helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve an agreement that guarantees peace and security for both peoples. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the sole cause of anti-American animus and anti-American terrorism, but it is one of the most significant ones. The 44th President cannot hope to win the so-called war on terror unless he is prepared to lead America back to its role of honest broker in the region. That means ending the bloodshed, relieving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and moving quickly toward a political agreement.

That is what I hope the next president will do. If not, the situation will deteriorate rapidly. Let's hope that Obama and McCain are each ready to push hard for a breakthrough starting on Day 1.

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.