Commentary Magazine

Next Year in (a Divided?) Jerusalem

What irritated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin most about the demonstrations against him this past July was not the epithets “murderer” and “traitor” shouted by a few hotheads. Such mindless name-calling could be dismissed as the kind of verbal violence expected of a frustrated opposition. It was, rather, the charge of insincerity on the issue of Jerusalem, delivered by speaker after speaker, which made Rabin livid. To accuse him of being prepared to compromise on the indivisibility of Jerusalem, he said, was not only a flagrant falsehood; it damaged Israel’s cause by imparting the impression that there was no national consensus on the matter.

On the face of it, Rabin’s indignation is understandable. After all, he and every other major Labor-party figure have dutifully repeated the government’s catechism on Jerusalem in virtually every speech before domestic and foreign audiences alike: “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the state of Israel. It will remain, undivided, under Israeli sovereignty.” To suggest that they do not mean this is to accuse them not only of hypocrisy but of betraying a fundamental article of faith.

Nor is Rabin—who was an officer in the Palmach brigade which fought to lift the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 and who then served as Chief of the General Staff in 1967 when the Old City was liberated from Jordanian occupation—above using his own past to make the point. In one recent speech he said: “My entire life has centered around Jerusalem. I was born there, I fought there, and now 46 years later, I remember each day, each moment, and each flame from within the armored cars on the road to the besieged city.” In a later speech, he made the issue even more personal: “I did more to liberate the city than Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert have ever done.” (In 1967, Netanyahu, now the leader of Likud, and Olmert, also a member of Likud and now the mayor of Jerusalem, were about twenty years old.)

Skeptics may cavil that another Labor-party pledge—“we’ll never leave the Golan”—was also inviolable until it ceased to be so. But others insist that the issues are dissimilar. For all its strategic essentiality, the Golan does not possess the quasi-mystical meaning of Jerusalem, a meaning which transcends differences between hawks and doves, the religious and secular, Right and Left, and even Zionists and non-Zionists. If there is one issue on which Rabin cannot retreat—so this school of thought believes—it is Jerusalem.

Yet to Rabin-watchers, including some of his fiercest supporters, his vehemence on the subject of Jerusalem seems suspiciously like a case of protesting too much. For example, the Ha’aretz columnist Dan Margalit (who discovered Mrs. Rabin’s illegal New York bank account in 1977 and thereby precipitated her husband’s downfall as Prime Minister the first time around, but who is now a consistent Rabin booster) warned that Rabin’s overreaction was ill-advised, that it created the impression he had something to hide.

Margalit’s unease is not baseless. Israelis have learned that the more vocally the government proclaims a particular “red line” uncrossable, the more likely it is to be crossed.



Such anxiety is exacerbated by other familiar symptoms. As in the case of the Rabin government’s declared willingness to withdraw from the Golan, or its recognition of the PLO, or its implicit readiness to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1949 armistice lines—all Labor taboos and red lines until 1992—the ground for withdrawal in Jerusalem is being prepared by a relentless campaign. Dovish opinion-shapers both in Israel and abroad, feeling vindicated by the Oslo and Cairo agreements with the PLO, have been bombarding the media with articles and commentaries intended to prove that Jerusalem has never really been successfully unified, that the long-suffering Palestinians have been mistreated in the city, that they deserve half of it, and that a redivision will guarantee peace.

Typical of these is a recent article in the Washington Post by Gershon Baskin, international director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. Claiming that the 95-percent consensus in Israel for keeping Jerusalem undivided is an illusion, Baskin insists that the real consensus is for separation.

Israelis, he writes, believe that Jerusalem should never be physically divided, that it must remain an “open city with free access throughout its boundaries for all.” But what they want most is personal security. (“No one should have to fear getting a knife in his back in any part of the city.”) They do not want to relinquish the new Jewish neighborhoods built in 1967 on land formerly occupied by Jordan, and they want the Jewish holy places (not including the Temple Mount, which Baskin calls by its Arabic name, Haram) to remain under Israeli control. But they also do not care about ruling over the eastern half of the city.

To “prove” his thesis, Baskin asserts that almost no Israelis could name the 22 neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, containing 150,000 Arab residents, and that they very seldom visit there. He also adds a blatant untruth—and an insult to one of Israel’s leading doves, the former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek—by stating that “since 1967 the Jerusalem municipality has invested nothing in these neighborhoods.” (Kollek asserts that the city has spent “no less money on the Arab part of the city than on the Jewish section,” which means three times as much per capita.)

In fact, the improvement in the standard of living and the increase in municipal services for Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants have been dramatic under Israeli rule. Life expectancy has increased by fifteen years; electric, water, and plumbing services, scarce under the neglectful Jordanians, now reach virtually every Arab home. The most opulent new houses in Jerusalem belong to Arabs. The largest, most modern health clinic in the city has been built in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarah, a few hundred yards from where 70 doctors and nurses in a medical convoy to the Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus were slaughtered by terrorists in the 1948 war. This clinic is serviced by Arab doctors trained at the Hadassah medical center.

For advocates of redivision all this is irrelevant. If Jerusalem is to become “one city living in peace,” says Baskin, the arrangement must be to “let Israel rule over Israeli Jerusalem and let Palestine rule over Palestinian Jerusalem.”

This idea is echoed by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, whose pronouncements almost infallibly foreshadow government policies. Speaking to the B’nai B’rith organization in Washington a few months ago, Beilin said that the Palestinians should have “their own elected administration” in their parts of the city. “But,” he was quick to assure his audience, “this does not mean that the city must again be divided.”

Yasir Arafat’s notorious speech in Johannesburg, in which he revealed the existence of a “Jerusalem letter” from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that assured the continued activities of national Palestinian institutions in the city, added to the general skepticism about the government’s intentions. That these intentions might be less than honorable seemed to be further confirmed when the government indignantly denied the letter existed. Worse yet, when the text was finally released, it proved more damaging than expected. Referring to the annexed part of the city as a separate entity—“East Jerusalem”—Peres promised not only “not to hamper the activity of all the Palestinian institutions” in it, but to encourage the fulfillment of their “important mission.”



On their side, the Palestinians have addressed the Jerusalem issue with the kind of sophistication one has come to expect of them. Their offensive, a successful imitation of Zionist techniques under the British Mandate, has consisted of establishing “facts on the ground” while pursuing a public-relations campaign breathtaking in its scope and boldness.

Unobtrusively opening offices, agencies, services, and communication centers, they have created over the last few years a quasi-governmental network in the city’s Arab neighborhoods. These offices are not restricted to Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction of the PLO. Opponents of the agreement with Israel like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as the radical Islamic movement, Hamas, also have offices in town. Orient House—a mansion owned by Arafat’s local surrogate, Faisal Husseini—occupies a central place in this network, functioning as the unofficial Foreign Ministry of the nascent Palestinian state.

American pressure made it impossible even for the Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to do anything about all this. It was only the advent of self-rule in Gaza and Jericho—and pressure from the opposition as well as from its own ranks—that prompted the Rabin government to pass legislation in July prohibiting such activity in Jerusalem. Whether Husseini and his people will obey the new law depends mostly on the conduct of foreign powers.

Up until now, however, those powers, all favoring the creation of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, have willingly collaborated in treating the Palestinian offices as government agencies. Obeying Palestinian instructions, a visiting head of state usually requests that his own ambassador in Israel and the Israeli Foreign-Ministry official assigned to accompany him leave his entourage before he enters the area in which the Palestinian offices are located. The Israeli flag on his car is exchanged for a PLO flag, and Israeli security personnel are replaced by PLO bodyguards belonging to a special security-service unit under Faisal Husseini’s command, which imposes its own law on the Arab inhabitants. (Some of these PLO bodyguards have been charged by the Israeli police with the unauthorized arrest and torture of local Arabs.)

Indeed, virtually no foreign power recognizes Israeli sovereignty in any part of Jerusalem, let alone in the eastern half. (Thus, an American born anywhere in Jerusalem has only the city’s name noted in his birth certificate and passport. No country is named.) All the major powers have special consulates assigned to Jerusalem, and these regard themselves as embassies to “Palestine,” rather than consular offices in Israel.

The American consulate in Jerusalem, for example, does not report to the U. S. ambassador in Tel Aviv but directly to the State Department. That the U. S. considers the eastern part of Jerusalem “occupied territory” has been made clear by its voting at the UN (most recently following the Hebron massacre) for resolutions which define the city as “occupied.” The only difference this year was that the Israeli government acquiesced in the vote on Hebron and dissuaded American Jewish organizations from combating it, despite the opposition of 83 U. S. Senators to the resolution.

The PLO drive to establish a de-facto division of Jerusalem has been accompanied by an intensive propaganda campaign. Its purpose is twofold: to convince the Israeli public that peace is unthinkable unless Jerusalem becomes the capital of the Palestinian state; and to persuade the world that the legitimacy of the religious, cultural, national, and ethnic claims of the Palestinians to Jerusalem is far greater than that of the Jewish claims.

To achieve the first goal, every PLO official, from Arafat on down, keeps warning that the armed struggle will resume with unprecedented intensity, and that no “final-status” settlement is possible unless Jerusalem is “shared.” That the operative word is “shared,” not “divided,” is a measure of the campaign’s sophistication. The Berlin Wall—and, for those who still remember, the fences of pre-1967 Jerusalem—have given divided cities a bad name.

The implication is not only that “sharing” will not entail a true division, but that if Israelis refuse it, they will stand exposed as greedy and selfish. Advocating “sharing,” Faisal Husseini says, “I’d hate to see Jerusalem divided by walls.” Other PLO officials follow the same formula: the city should remain united and open, but it should house two municipalities and two governments: “A Knesset on one hill and a Palestinian parliament on another,” as the PLO’s London representative, Atif Safieh, has put it.



But the most breathtaking component of the Palestinians’ propaganda campaign is the “historical” structure they have built to bolster their claim to the city.

Here, for instance, is an entry in the Palestinian Encyclopedia (Vol II, p. 667, Beirut 1978 ed.): “Jerusalem is an Arab city because its first builders were the Canaanite Jebusites, whose descendants are the Palestinians. Ever since the destruction of the Temple, the link with Jews and Christians has been severed. Muslims alone have a right to the Temple.” Another entry has it that “The Palestinians are the descendants of the Jebusites, who are of Arab origin.”

Writing to the Jerusalem Post (September 7, 1990), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan described a letter he had received from the Beit Sahur Committee—a Palestinian group devoted to publicizing the truth about the situation in the Middle East:

Their letter was in response to the legislation I introduced acknowledging a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The committee wrote to assure me that “an in-depth analysis” of the “historical past” reveals that Jerusalem is of great significance and utmost importance to Christians and Muslims but was never of religious, political, or historical significance to the Prophet Moses or the Jewish people.

Jerusalem, we are told, was “founded by the Canaanites in 1800 B.C.E.” and ruled by “Jebusites for 800 years” until it was “captured by David who proclaimed himself King of Israel. The kingdom of Judah saw its destruction 73 years later by the Babylonians.”

It gets better. The Canaanites, we are told, “are the ancestors of Palestinians of today” while “historians confirm” that “the Jews who came to Palestine in our time are converts to Judaism from several races and regions of the world and possess no racial link to the original Israelis” who were “killed or deported” by the Romans.

Such palpable nonsense would have been dismissed as childish fantasies at any other time in modern history. (The Jebusites, a Hurrian tribe that ruled in the area that is today northern Syria and western Iraq, were in no way related to the nomads of the Arabian peninsula, from whom the Arabs emerged 1,600 years later. Nor can the Palestinians have it both ways. They can either be descendants of the Canaanites or the land’s Arab occupiers, but not both.) Yet at a time when “multicultural” myths pass for history, stories which would embarrass Scheherezade become accepted wisdom.

Thus, the Webster’s New World Encyclopedia (1992) has accepted without question the myth that “The Palestinian people are descendants of the people of Canaan.” And swept off its rational feet by the same witless mythology, National Geographic (circulation ten million) has featured a lengthy article by the American journalist Tad Szulc containing similarly ludicrous “facts” about Palestinian origins: “The ancestors of today’s Palestinians appeared along the southeastern Mediterranean coast more than five millennia ago . . . the Philistines are among their forebears.” (Actually, the Philistines, invaders from Crete, were neither Semites nor Arabs. They and all other tribes which settled along the coast disappeared more than 1,000 years before the Arab invasion of the area.)

The Jerusalem Post columnist Teddy Preuss could not resist a little send-up of these claims:

Our forefather Abraham was a Palestinian (it is a fact that he is buried in Hebron), as were his son, his grandson, and the Twelve Tribes of Palestine from Reuben to Benjamin. The Levites were no more than the first muezzins, kadis, and priests. Like them, Noah and his three sons were Palestinians (one of them being called Shem, the father of the Palestinians), as were Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve. Only the Serpent was a Zionist!

It is now more than a decade since Arafat revealed that Jesus, too, was a Palestinian. (Palestine is, of course, never mentioned in the New Testament. The Romans named the country Palestine, after the Jews’ biblical enemies, only after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the last Jewish rebellions.) This insult to the intelligence, when parroted by the PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi at the Madrid conference in 1990, brought cheers from hundreds of mesmerized journalists. And media “experts” have kept on repeating the falsities that Jerusalem is not only the third holiest city to Muslims, but that it is “the cradle of Islam,” a place of Islamic pilgrimage, and the ancient capital of Arab Palestine.

An innocent observer bombarded by these myths could hardly be blamed for deeming the presence of Jews in the country—let alone their claim to Jerusalem—as nothing more than an invasive irritation. For according to the version of history now accepted by some of the most respectable authorities, Jews were but one insignificant tribe which for a short period ruled a small part of the Palestinian land 3,000 years ago.



Israel has done little to counter this propaganda. If anything, government-issued literature has abetted some of the Arab claims by referring to Jerusalem as equally sacred to all three religions, and often featuring the Dome of the Rock as the symbol of the city.

Moreover, most Israelis, fashionably ignorant of their own history, are ill-equipped to combat the assault on their rights to Jerusalem. Few know that since the reign of King David, the only nation of which Jerusalem has been the capital is the Jewish nation. (It served as a capital of the Crusader kingdom for 87 years, but the Crusaders were not a nation.) Even fewer Israelis know that the Jews are the only people who have inhabited Jerusalem continuously—with relatively short interruptions imposed by bans of conquerors—for 3,000 years, and that since 438 C.E. (200 years before the Muslim conquest) there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in Jerusalem. As early as 1820, Jews constituted the largest ethnic group in the city, and by the end of the 19th century they had become an absolute majority—a position they have kept for 100 years.

As for the role Jerusalem occupies in Jewish consciousness, it is unique in the annals of mankind. There is no equivalent in any culture for prayers, some of them going all the way back to biblical times, such as “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning” and others scarcely less ancient, such as “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Conversely, the impression of long, continuous Arab rule over Jerusalem is a myth. Arabs ruled it only immediately following the conquest in 638 C.E. The Muslim rulers who quickly succeeded them were Kurds, Seljuks, Mamluks, and Turks, not Arabs. None made Jerusalem their capital and almost all treated the city with shocking neglect.

The two mosques on the Temple Mount are impressive structures, but they were built mostly to compete with the legendary glory of the Jewish Second Temple and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Considered by the faithful a religion which superseded Judaism and Christianity, Islam could not let the holy places of those two faiths outshine Muslim shrines within its realm.

Nor is there any truth in the notion of Islamic religious tolerance. Jews and Christians were persecuted almost consistently under Islamic rule, a fact to which travelers testified in almost every century. That only the advent of Zionism begat Arab hostility to Jews is, then, just another lie. And the religious overtones of the hostility to Jews were never more apparent than when, after 1948, the Jordanian occupiers, the soldiers of the same Hashemite kingdom now hailed as a paragon of virtue and peace, destroyed all 58 ancient synagogues in the Old City.

When the Temple Mount mosques were erected, there was no reference to Jerusalem as the third holiest place to Islam. The city, mentioned 657 times in the Hebrew Bible and 154 times in the New Testament, is not mentioned even once in the Qu’ran. Muhammad never visited Jerusalem, and the Aqsa mosque to which, according to tradition, he made his flight could not have been the one by that name in Jerusalem, built 60 years after his death. True, at the beginning of his career, when he hoped to convert the Jews of Medina, he had his followers bow toward Jerusalem. But as soon as he realized that the Jews would not convert, he replaced Jerusalem with Mecca.

This is not to deny that Jerusalem has a meaning for Muslims. In the recently published Whose Jerusalem? by Eliyahu Tal—an encyclopedic compilation of facts about the city—the historian Zwi Werblowsky is quoted on the subject:

Islam provides us with perhaps the most impressive example of how a holy city can acquire a specific holiness on the basis of what, to the unbelieving outsider at least, is mere legend, superimposed no doubt on an earlier traditional sanctity of the place. Whereas in the case of Christianity the life and death of Jesus created religious facts (e.g., the resurrection and ascension) and both combined to create “holy places,” the Islamic case is the exact opposite. Beliefs and piety created religious facts, and these in turn produced historic facts which, for the contemporary student of religion, culture, and even politics, must be deemed as real as any other kind of “hard” fact.



Can Israel, then, resist the onslaught of the Islamic world—the jihad on Jerusalem which Arafat has called for—against its exclusive rule in Jerusalem?

If there is anything which can prevent the splitting of Jerusalem, it is the “facts on the ground” that Israel itself has established. Thus, almost immediately after the Six-Day War, the city limits were extended. Jewish neighborhoods began to be set up in five areas across the old Green Line dividing the city, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City was rebuilt, and the area in front of the Western Wall was cleared and made into a spacious plaza.

The Jewish population in the city doubled, from fewer than 200,000 in 1967 to 420,000 today. Of these, 150,000 live in an area formerly ruled by Jordan, slightly outnumbering the Arab population even in what is commonly known as Arab Jerusalem. (The Arab population has also more than doubled—from 65,000 to 150,000; under Jordanian occupation, it had declined.) Jews have settled even in such purely Arab neighborhoods as the “Muslim quarter” (actually a former Jewish neighborhood from which Jews had been expelled). A division of the city now seems impossible, unless more than 150,000 Jews were to be forcibly transferred from its eastern part.

Nor is it possible to “share” the city without dividing it. As Teddy Kollek, known for his willingness to compromise on virtually any issue, has pointed out—and as everyone with minimal common sense must realize—no city can function with two governments, two sets of laws, two police forces, and two customs systems. If Jerusalem serves as the Palestinian capital, it will be divided.

For now, an overwhelming majority of the Israeli Jewish population believes that such a division would spell disaster. More than any other single event, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem would convince the Arabs that the state of Palestine will inherit the state of Israel. No other Palestinian achievement could encourage irredentism and revanchism with greater force. And the Arabs who are currently citizens of Israel would find it impossible not to shift their allegiance to such a Palestinian state.

This would also spell the end of Jordan as an independent state—the prestige and standing of a Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital would make a PLO or Hamas takeover in Amman inevitable. To be sure, the accord signed by Rabin and King Hussein in Washington this past July has revived talk of the opposite scenario—the so-called “Jordanian option”—as if Israel were suddenly now free to ignore its agreement with the PLO and to solve its Palestinian problem with the civilized Hashemite rather than the arch-terrorist Arafat. But this, as Hussein himself has suggested, is nothing but wishful thinking.

The Rabin government is acutely aware of the almost total popular opposition to relinquishing any part of Jerusalem. That is why, in the accord with King Hussein, it promised to give “high priority” to Jordan’s historic role in the Muslim holy shrines. The government knows that few Israelis would object if its only concession were to allow Jordanian control over the religious enclave of the Temple Mount.

Indeed, the Muslim and Christian holy places already have a large measure of autonomy. Israeli police—unless they are in hot pursuit of terrorists—do not enter holy sites without first informing the religious figures in charge. Because of objections by the Wakf (the Muslim authority on the Temple Mount), no metal detectors can be installed at the entrances to the Mount. The Wakf determines when tourists can visit, and to all intents and purposes it has barred Israelis from the hallowed grounds. Until this year, Orthodox Jews who are members of the Temple Mount Faithful were allowed to stand for a half-hour of meditation in an open field at one corner of the Mount once a year, on Tisha B’Av. This year, even that was forbidden. Yet the Temple Mount, it should be noted, not the Western Wall, is Judaism’s holiest site.



Will the Rabin government be faithful to its word on Jerusalem? The circumstances which led to the effective relinquishment of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are virtually identical to those which now obtain in Jerusalem: the presence of a large and hostile Arab minority, the pressure of world opinion for an Israeli retreat, and the enticing prize of “peace” at the end of the road. The signs of hesitation are there: while the government still talks of building plans, most are frozen. It has promised to give Jerusalem Arabs, all of whom can be Israeli citizens for the asking, the right to vote in the autonomy elections. Its think-tank proxies are meeting with Arab counterparts, drawing maps, planning the split.

If the forfeiture of 22 neighborhoods in East Jerusalem ultimately appears as the only obstacle to comprehensive peace and idyllic prosperity, chances are that the withdrawal momentum will prevail, Jerusalem will be divided again, and the sovereign in the relinquished side will not be King Hussein but a dictatorship run by Hamas or the PLO.

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