For at least a decade, conventional wisdom in Western capitals has had it that “everyone knows” what the future of Jerusalem will be. A Palestinian state will encompass the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, with swaps of territory to allow Israel to annex the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including those that ring the city. Jerusalem will be the capital of both states; it will be open to citizens of both countries and people of all faiths. In the historic Old City, the holy sites that have been the focus of centuries — or millennia — of conflict will have their own governance: perhaps an international authority or a system of shared sovereignty.
Yet as the British writer Simon Sebag Montefiore makes clear in his sweeping and absorbing “biography” of the city, this carefully balanced compromise of shared sovereignty and tolerance would be a radical change in the history of Jerusalem — a small, arid, relatively poor and often squalid city subject to unearthly and inhuman passions. “For 1,000 years,” writes Montefiore, “Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.”