Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rachel’s Tomb

Obama Legacy Watch

As Jennifer points out, Syria joined Libya at the Arab League summit this weekend in egging on the Palestinian Arabs to quit the peace process with Israel. There were many ominous references at the summit to the probable failure of the current peace process, but the League reached no unified resolution on a way ahead for the Palestinian question. Arab news outlets derided this lack of resolution as a missed opportunity to declare the peace process dead and take a harder line with Israel. But there was no question among observers that, as Al Jazeera proclaimed, “Israel dominated the summit.”

This isn’t surprising, of course, but in the larger context of regional dynamics, it’s a bad sign. With Iran supporting insurgencies in Yemen and Lebanon, establishing a military presence in the Red Sea, and nearing a nuclear breakout, the summit’s histrionic focus on housing construction in a part of Jerusalem that has never even been on the bargaining table has a somewhat demented air about it.

The League didn’t ignore Iran, however. On Saturday, Egypt’s Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary-general, reiterated his call for a regional negotiating forum with Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan endorsed the Moussa proposal — which includes Turkey as a forum participant — with alacrity. Erdogan himself was present at the summit and made headlines with his official address on Sunday, in which he referred to Israel’s stance on Jerusalem as “madness.” He then pointedly appropriated a biblical allusion — “Jerusalem is the apple of the eye of each and every Muslim” — and pretty much put to rest any doubts about his partisan posture. (Not that there were many doubts remaining after his March 7 proclamation that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.”)

Barack Obama’s legacy is beginning to emerge. An Al Jazeera editorial writer made this telling statement in a background article on the Arab summit on Friday: “Arab leaders often meet in order to follow U.S. dictates.” We in the U.S. don’t think that’s true, naturally, but the overstatement does get at the underlying truth that U.S. policy has for several decades set boundaries on what the Middle East’s various actors consider possible. In countering the Soviet Union, affirming Israel’s right to exist, containing Iran, and keeping the seaways open, American policy has set the conditions in which the nations of the region operated.

The irresolution of this weekend’s summit is an indication that the Arab League’s members aren’t sure yet what boundaries are implied by Obama’s policy. But after 14 months of it, Turkey’s overtly Islamist posture is hardening and its commitment to secularism is being dismantled. The Arab League is talking seriously about launching a negotiating forum with Iran, precisely because of the impotence of U.S. policy. And the League is pessimistic about the future of the peace process, unified on this point if on no other: that under current conditions, the Palestinians should not agree to rejoin sponsored talks of any kind.

As Jennifer points out, Syria joined Libya at the Arab League summit this weekend in egging on the Palestinian Arabs to quit the peace process with Israel. There were many ominous references at the summit to the probable failure of the current peace process, but the League reached no unified resolution on a way ahead for the Palestinian question. Arab news outlets derided this lack of resolution as a missed opportunity to declare the peace process dead and take a harder line with Israel. But there was no question among observers that, as Al Jazeera proclaimed, “Israel dominated the summit.”

This isn’t surprising, of course, but in the larger context of regional dynamics, it’s a bad sign. With Iran supporting insurgencies in Yemen and Lebanon, establishing a military presence in the Red Sea, and nearing a nuclear breakout, the summit’s histrionic focus on housing construction in a part of Jerusalem that has never even been on the bargaining table has a somewhat demented air about it.

The League didn’t ignore Iran, however. On Saturday, Egypt’s Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary-general, reiterated his call for a regional negotiating forum with Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan endorsed the Moussa proposal — which includes Turkey as a forum participant — with alacrity. Erdogan himself was present at the summit and made headlines with his official address on Sunday, in which he referred to Israel’s stance on Jerusalem as “madness.” He then pointedly appropriated a biblical allusion — “Jerusalem is the apple of the eye of each and every Muslim” — and pretty much put to rest any doubts about his partisan posture. (Not that there were many doubts remaining after his March 7 proclamation that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.”)

Barack Obama’s legacy is beginning to emerge. An Al Jazeera editorial writer made this telling statement in a background article on the Arab summit on Friday: “Arab leaders often meet in order to follow U.S. dictates.” We in the U.S. don’t think that’s true, naturally, but the overstatement does get at the underlying truth that U.S. policy has for several decades set boundaries on what the Middle East’s various actors consider possible. In countering the Soviet Union, affirming Israel’s right to exist, containing Iran, and keeping the seaways open, American policy has set the conditions in which the nations of the region operated.

The irresolution of this weekend’s summit is an indication that the Arab League’s members aren’t sure yet what boundaries are implied by Obama’s policy. But after 14 months of it, Turkey’s overtly Islamist posture is hardening and its commitment to secularism is being dismantled. The Arab League is talking seriously about launching a negotiating forum with Iran, precisely because of the impotence of U.S. policy. And the League is pessimistic about the future of the peace process, unified on this point if on no other: that under current conditions, the Palestinians should not agree to rejoin sponsored talks of any kind.

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Let’s Be Honest with the Palestinians

Obama’s now ill-fated Middle East policy has proved to be disastrous. The Israelis distrust him. Ths Syrians snub him. The Palestinians are contemplating another intifada, the pretext this time being Israel’s decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb within its heritage-protection program. Obama began his foray into the Middle East by declaring that it was essential to speak “honestly” with the parties and to say the same thing in public and private. Fair enough. But alas, he seems to have reserved all that honesty for the Israelis, for whom heritage programs, apartment buildings, and the blockade of Gaza are all taken as offenses against Palestinian sensibilities. Don’t aggravate them! Don’t inflame things! Israel is expected to forgo its legitimate interests, whether for security or cultural preservation, because the Palestinians apparently are incapable of accepting it is a normal state with normal concerns.

Not only does the perpetual stream of American complaints strike the Israelis (and others) as intensely one-sided and irrelevant to the core issue that prevents peace from breaking out of “process” and into reality, but it infantilizes the Palestinians, treating them as psychotic children and playing to their worst tendencies. The upcoming Naqba Day — the epitome of victimology — is explained poignantly here:

The Palestinians seem to be in thrall to some force that commands them to relive continuously the most painful moment of their own history; to mire themselves in a swamp of self-pity; to prevent themselves from rising above the lot imposed upon them by the Arab League’s 1947 refusal to countenance the establishment of a Jewish State in their midst and its ill-fated 1948 war against the Jews; and to render themselves susceptible to repeated acts of betrayal by their own brethren. … Their continuing to believe in the return they were duped into believing in so many years ago can only put the nationhood they claim to long for further out of reach. There will be no return—that’s the reality. If they face it, there’s hope for them. If they don’t, there’s only the hell and suffering of their statelessness.

Rather than telling them that they’re victims of illegal settlements, Obama might do well to tell the Palestinians that they’re prisoners of their own victimology. And then, yes, when real honesty is in play, we might make some headway on that peace process.

Obama’s now ill-fated Middle East policy has proved to be disastrous. The Israelis distrust him. Ths Syrians snub him. The Palestinians are contemplating another intifada, the pretext this time being Israel’s decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb within its heritage-protection program. Obama began his foray into the Middle East by declaring that it was essential to speak “honestly” with the parties and to say the same thing in public and private. Fair enough. But alas, he seems to have reserved all that honesty for the Israelis, for whom heritage programs, apartment buildings, and the blockade of Gaza are all taken as offenses against Palestinian sensibilities. Don’t aggravate them! Don’t inflame things! Israel is expected to forgo its legitimate interests, whether for security or cultural preservation, because the Palestinians apparently are incapable of accepting it is a normal state with normal concerns.

Not only does the perpetual stream of American complaints strike the Israelis (and others) as intensely one-sided and irrelevant to the core issue that prevents peace from breaking out of “process” and into reality, but it infantilizes the Palestinians, treating them as psychotic children and playing to their worst tendencies. The upcoming Naqba Day — the epitome of victimology — is explained poignantly here:

The Palestinians seem to be in thrall to some force that commands them to relive continuously the most painful moment of their own history; to mire themselves in a swamp of self-pity; to prevent themselves from rising above the lot imposed upon them by the Arab League’s 1947 refusal to countenance the establishment of a Jewish State in their midst and its ill-fated 1948 war against the Jews; and to render themselves susceptible to repeated acts of betrayal by their own brethren. … Their continuing to believe in the return they were duped into believing in so many years ago can only put the nationhood they claim to long for further out of reach. There will be no return—that’s the reality. If they face it, there’s hope for them. If they don’t, there’s only the hell and suffering of their statelessness.

Rather than telling them that they’re victims of illegal settlements, Obama might do well to tell the Palestinians that they’re prisoners of their own victimology. And then, yes, when real honesty is in play, we might make some headway on that peace process.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Senate candidate Dan Coats thinks Obama is getting ready for a containment strategy for Iran, and he doesn’t like it: “Coats said the ‘only option’ left to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the threat of military action. Coats said most Americans agree that Iran must not be allowed to have such weapons, even though Iranian leaders continue to press forward with their nuclear program. … ‘If it’s unacceptable, what are we going to do? … And now it seems we’re being asked to accept the unacceptable.’”

Democrats tried going after the CIA again, determined to criminalize interrogation techniques: “If this Act becomes law (it may have already been killed in Congress at the time of this writing), it will surely cause confusion for interrogators who want to know where the line is, precisely, lest they be thrown in jail. This creates risk aversion among interrogators where none is warranted.”

Liz Cheney objected: “American intelligence officers do not deserve this kind of treatment from the government they honorably serve. Day in and day out, they protect our country and make difficult decisions–at times in matters of life and death. In return for their service the government rewards them with little pay and no acknowledgement of their heroic actions. Democrats in Congress now want to threaten them with criminal prosecutions and deprive them of valuable tactics that protect America.”

And Democrats pulled the bill.

Larry Sabato (h/t Jim Geraghty): “The Crystal Ball moves five Democratic seats from a “safe” rating onto our list of competitive races: KY-6 (Ben Chandler), MA-10 (Bill Delahunt), OH-13 (Betty Sutton), SC-5 (John Spratt), and VA-9 (Rick Boucher). In addition, two already competitive races for Democrats look even worse than before—IA-3 (Leonard Boswell) and IN-8 (OPEN, Brad Ellsworth)—and two Republican incumbents have improved their reelection prospects—AL-3 (Mike Rogers) and CA-44 (Ken Calvert).”

The Orthodox Union is upset with the Obama administration for criticizing the Heritage Plan, under which Israel will invest $100 million in rehabilitating historic and religious sites throughout Israel. Netanyahu included among the sites the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Palestinians objected, and then the State Department chimed in and called the inclusion of such sites “provocative.” The OU responded: “It is not ‘provocative’ to invest in and rehabilitate holy/historic sites — that are open to both Jews and Muslims. Nothing PM Netanyahu has proposed precludes a peace agreement. It is provocative for the Palestinians to assert that there is no Jewish connection to these sites and for them to use this as yet another false basis for refusal to engage in peace negotiations.”

Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: “In equating high-risk pools to racial segregation, Senator Harkin not only betrays his ignorance of history and his tone-deafness, but a disconcerting obliviousness to the contents of the Democrats’ own health-care plan. In fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has sent two letters to Congress and the president detailing the various discriminatory provisions in the Democrats’ health-care plan. It’s often said that the party who first invokes Hitler has lost the argument. In this case, the party who first invoked racial discrimination has lost perspective, if not his senses.”

Part of Obama’s problem: “At the very same hour as Obama is talking about his beloved healthcare plan, out come surprising new federal numbers showing that last week new J-O-B-L-E-S-S claims unexpectedly went up — as in more of them — to nearly a half-million, 22,000 more than the previous week. And nearly 8% higher than the expected 460,000 new claims.”

Politico on Tom Campbell’s Sami Al-Arian problem: “A bespectacled former college professor who has pleaded guilty to aiding the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad helped tip the balance in a 2004 Senate contest in Florida. Now, six years later, Sami Al-Arian could be on the verge of doing it again, this time in California. Republican Senate hopeful Tom Campbell, a former congressman, has come under sustained attack on conservative websites and from his rivals in recent days for taking a campaign donation from Al-Arian in 2000, for backing legislation Al-Arian was lobbying for at the time and for allegedly being a less-than-steadfast supporter of Israel.”

JTA is into it too, noting how inappropriate it is for Campbell to use a selective quote from a letter of the late and very great friend of Israel Tom Lantos: “Using Lantos’ letter to bolster Campbell’s case is really icky.”

Senate candidate Dan Coats thinks Obama is getting ready for a containment strategy for Iran, and he doesn’t like it: “Coats said the ‘only option’ left to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the threat of military action. Coats said most Americans agree that Iran must not be allowed to have such weapons, even though Iranian leaders continue to press forward with their nuclear program. … ‘If it’s unacceptable, what are we going to do? … And now it seems we’re being asked to accept the unacceptable.’”

Democrats tried going after the CIA again, determined to criminalize interrogation techniques: “If this Act becomes law (it may have already been killed in Congress at the time of this writing), it will surely cause confusion for interrogators who want to know where the line is, precisely, lest they be thrown in jail. This creates risk aversion among interrogators where none is warranted.”

Liz Cheney objected: “American intelligence officers do not deserve this kind of treatment from the government they honorably serve. Day in and day out, they protect our country and make difficult decisions–at times in matters of life and death. In return for their service the government rewards them with little pay and no acknowledgement of their heroic actions. Democrats in Congress now want to threaten them with criminal prosecutions and deprive them of valuable tactics that protect America.”

And Democrats pulled the bill.

Larry Sabato (h/t Jim Geraghty): “The Crystal Ball moves five Democratic seats from a “safe” rating onto our list of competitive races: KY-6 (Ben Chandler), MA-10 (Bill Delahunt), OH-13 (Betty Sutton), SC-5 (John Spratt), and VA-9 (Rick Boucher). In addition, two already competitive races for Democrats look even worse than before—IA-3 (Leonard Boswell) and IN-8 (OPEN, Brad Ellsworth)—and two Republican incumbents have improved their reelection prospects—AL-3 (Mike Rogers) and CA-44 (Ken Calvert).”

The Orthodox Union is upset with the Obama administration for criticizing the Heritage Plan, under which Israel will invest $100 million in rehabilitating historic and religious sites throughout Israel. Netanyahu included among the sites the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Palestinians objected, and then the State Department chimed in and called the inclusion of such sites “provocative.” The OU responded: “It is not ‘provocative’ to invest in and rehabilitate holy/historic sites — that are open to both Jews and Muslims. Nothing PM Netanyahu has proposed precludes a peace agreement. It is provocative for the Palestinians to assert that there is no Jewish connection to these sites and for them to use this as yet another false basis for refusal to engage in peace negotiations.”

Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: “In equating high-risk pools to racial segregation, Senator Harkin not only betrays his ignorance of history and his tone-deafness, but a disconcerting obliviousness to the contents of the Democrats’ own health-care plan. In fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has sent two letters to Congress and the president detailing the various discriminatory provisions in the Democrats’ health-care plan. It’s often said that the party who first invokes Hitler has lost the argument. In this case, the party who first invoked racial discrimination has lost perspective, if not his senses.”

Part of Obama’s problem: “At the very same hour as Obama is talking about his beloved healthcare plan, out come surprising new federal numbers showing that last week new J-O-B-L-E-S-S claims unexpectedly went up — as in more of them — to nearly a half-million, 22,000 more than the previous week. And nearly 8% higher than the expected 460,000 new claims.”

Politico on Tom Campbell’s Sami Al-Arian problem: “A bespectacled former college professor who has pleaded guilty to aiding the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad helped tip the balance in a 2004 Senate contest in Florida. Now, six years later, Sami Al-Arian could be on the verge of doing it again, this time in California. Republican Senate hopeful Tom Campbell, a former congressman, has come under sustained attack on conservative websites and from his rivals in recent days for taking a campaign donation from Al-Arian in 2000, for backing legislation Al-Arian was lobbying for at the time and for allegedly being a less-than-steadfast supporter of Israel.”

JTA is into it too, noting how inappropriate it is for Campbell to use a selective quote from a letter of the late and very great friend of Israel Tom Lantos: “Using Lantos’ letter to bolster Campbell’s case is really icky.”

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UN “Peace” Coordinator: Jewish Heritage an Invalid Concept

Earlier today I wrote about the implications of an important new archeological discovery that highlights the 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage in East Jerusalem. Such finds have political significance specifically because the whole focus of Palestinian nationalism has been to deny Jewish ties to the land and to attempt to rewrite history in such a way as to expunge the historicity and continuity of the Jewish presence.

But the reason why this issue is so important was brought home again today by a statement coming from Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. In it, Serry went out of his way to condemn the recently announced National Heritage Plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because two ancient Jewish religious shrines were included in the list of sites to be preserved and protected. Serry objected to the inclusion of Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the list of essential places in Jewish history, because the two are in the West Bank and thus, in his view, “occupied Palestinian territory.” The fact that they are located on land that is subject to dispute between the two parties is of no interest to the UN official who, despite his status as a peace mediator, is ready to dictate where the borders of a putative Palestinian state must be. But Serry’s argument is not merely one of borders, because in the same statement he claimed that the sites “are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”

It is true that Christians and Muslims have an intrinsic interest in any biblical site. And since Muslims, like Jews, consider Abraham to be one of their patriarchs, they have a religious stake in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But Muslims have never been willing to share this most ancient of Jewish shrines with other faiths. Throughout the history of Muslim control of the land of Israel, through the Ottoman era and even during the time of British rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the cave and were, instead, constrained to ascend no higher than the seventh step of the entrance to the sacred place. Jewish prayer inside the cave only resumed in June 1967, after the Israeli conquest of Hebron, after which the two religions have shared the place despite the history of tension and bloodshed in the Hebron area.

As for Rachel’s Tomb, it is simply a lie to consider it anything but a Jewish synagogue. No faith but Judaism has ever held worship services in the place or considered it a shrine. Palestinian propaganda that has attempted to portray it as some sort of a Muslim site are of recent vintage and utterly false.

But much like the history of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews were forbidden even to visit while it was under Muslim sovereignty from 1949 to 1967 during Jordan’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the only thing that has guaranteed Jewish access to both the Hebron and Bethlehem sites has been Israel’s control of these areas. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, the only time in the history of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Hebron that these religious sites have been kept free and open to all visitors of all faiths has been the 42 years since the Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s Heritage Plan is no threat to other faiths, because only Israel is committed to religious freedom and the protection of all religious shrines.

Should the UN coordinator have his way and Rachel’s Tomb or the Cave of the Patriarchs ever fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, we know very well what would happen. Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a longtime site of Jewish worship and study, was sacked and burned by a Palestinian mob aided and abetted by PA policemen in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada. The PA has prevented the reconstruction of the site. An ancient synagogue in Jericho, also under PA control, met the same fate.

By opposing the Jewish Heritage Plan, the UN isn’t merely sniping at Netanyahu. It is signaling its backing of a Palestinian and Muslim approach to the history of the land in which Judaism is systematically erased. If indeed Serry and the UN are actually interested in preserving these sites for members of all faiths to visit, rather than in merely chasing the Jews out of them, the only formula for their preservation lies in continued Israeli control.

Earlier today I wrote about the implications of an important new archeological discovery that highlights the 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage in East Jerusalem. Such finds have political significance specifically because the whole focus of Palestinian nationalism has been to deny Jewish ties to the land and to attempt to rewrite history in such a way as to expunge the historicity and continuity of the Jewish presence.

But the reason why this issue is so important was brought home again today by a statement coming from Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. In it, Serry went out of his way to condemn the recently announced National Heritage Plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because two ancient Jewish religious shrines were included in the list of sites to be preserved and protected. Serry objected to the inclusion of Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the list of essential places in Jewish history, because the two are in the West Bank and thus, in his view, “occupied Palestinian territory.” The fact that they are located on land that is subject to dispute between the two parties is of no interest to the UN official who, despite his status as a peace mediator, is ready to dictate where the borders of a putative Palestinian state must be. But Serry’s argument is not merely one of borders, because in the same statement he claimed that the sites “are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”

It is true that Christians and Muslims have an intrinsic interest in any biblical site. And since Muslims, like Jews, consider Abraham to be one of their patriarchs, they have a religious stake in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But Muslims have never been willing to share this most ancient of Jewish shrines with other faiths. Throughout the history of Muslim control of the land of Israel, through the Ottoman era and even during the time of British rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the cave and were, instead, constrained to ascend no higher than the seventh step of the entrance to the sacred place. Jewish prayer inside the cave only resumed in June 1967, after the Israeli conquest of Hebron, after which the two religions have shared the place despite the history of tension and bloodshed in the Hebron area.

As for Rachel’s Tomb, it is simply a lie to consider it anything but a Jewish synagogue. No faith but Judaism has ever held worship services in the place or considered it a shrine. Palestinian propaganda that has attempted to portray it as some sort of a Muslim site are of recent vintage and utterly false.

But much like the history of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews were forbidden even to visit while it was under Muslim sovereignty from 1949 to 1967 during Jordan’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the only thing that has guaranteed Jewish access to both the Hebron and Bethlehem sites has been Israel’s control of these areas. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, the only time in the history of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Hebron that these religious sites have been kept free and open to all visitors of all faiths has been the 42 years since the Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s Heritage Plan is no threat to other faiths, because only Israel is committed to religious freedom and the protection of all religious shrines.

Should the UN coordinator have his way and Rachel’s Tomb or the Cave of the Patriarchs ever fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, we know very well what would happen. Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a longtime site of Jewish worship and study, was sacked and burned by a Palestinian mob aided and abetted by PA policemen in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada. The PA has prevented the reconstruction of the site. An ancient synagogue in Jericho, also under PA control, met the same fate.

By opposing the Jewish Heritage Plan, the UN isn’t merely sniping at Netanyahu. It is signaling its backing of a Palestinian and Muslim approach to the history of the land in which Judaism is systematically erased. If indeed Serry and the UN are actually interested in preserving these sites for members of all faiths to visit, rather than in merely chasing the Jews out of them, the only formula for their preservation lies in continued Israeli control.

Read Less