Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Jerusalem

On Israel, Obama Playing the Mideast Game Wrong

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Posted April 23, 2010

The Middle East peace process is stalled thanks to a second deadlock engineered by the United States government. President Obama began the process with his call for a settlement freeze in 2009 and escalates it now with a major change of American policy on Jerusalem.

The president seeks to prohibit Israel from any construction in its capital—in an exclusively Jewish suburb of East Jerusalem. This, despite the fact that all former administrations had unequivocally understood that the area in question would remain part of Israel in any final peace agreement.

Objecting to this early phase of the planning process for housing in East Jerusalem is tantamount to getting the Israelis to agree to the division of Jerusalem in any settlement—even before the start of final status talks with the Palestinians. In 1995, it was by a substantial bipartisan majority that Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act calling for the movement of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—and equally importantly, stating that Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty.

But Obama has undermined the confidence of the Israelis in the United States from the start of his presidency. He uses the same term, "settlements," ambiguously for both massive neighborhoods that are the homes to tens of thousands of Jews and for illegal outposts, raising the question for the Israelis about whether the U.S. administration really understands the issue. The Palestinian Authority followed the president's lead and refused to proceed with planned proximity talks until Israel stops all settlement activities, including in East Jerusalem.

The president's attitude toward Jerusalem betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the city. After Israel was recognized as a new state in 1948, it was immediately attacked by the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The attacks were repelled, but the Jordanians, who were asked not to join the Egyptian war effort, conquered East Jerusalem and separated it from its western half. In 1967, the Arab armies again sought to destroy Israel, but it prevailed in the famous Six-Day War and reconquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip.

East Jerusalem, a growing community, was expanded on rock-strewn land that had been in the public domain for the last 43 years. But Palestinian leaders lay claim to East Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the holiest sites in Judaism, and which the Arabs had failed to protect while in their control. When he gave his speech in Cairo, Obama looked to when "Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims." Did he not realize it is only under Israeli rule since 1967 that all adherents of all religions represented in Jerusalem have been able to worship freely and access their religious sites?

Under Jordanian rule, from 1948 to 1967, dozens of synagogues were destroyed or vandalized, and the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated, its tombstones used for the construction of roads and Jordanian army latrines. The rights of Christians as well as Jews were abused, with some churches converted into mosques. In other cases, mosques were built next to churches and synagogues just so their minarets could rise above them.

When Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967, it kept building for its residents. So did the Palestinian Arabs who continue to build in Jerusalem (incidentally, there is more new Arab housing being built than Jewish housing), but they did it without any criticism from the Obama administration.

But Israel's claim for sovereignty over the whole, undivided city of Jerusalem does not spring from conquest in 1948 or 1967. Rather it signifies the revival of historic rights and claims that predate the arrival of any Arabs to the region, and stems from biblical times.

Jerusalem is not just another piece of territory on a political chessboard. It is integral to the identity and faith of Israel. The city was founded by King David some 3,500 years ago. Since then, Jews have lived there, worked there, and prayed there. It has been more than a political capital; it has been their spiritual beacon. During the First and Second Temple periods, Jews from across the Kingdom would travel to Jerusalem three times a year for the Jewish holy days of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, until the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D.

That ended Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the next 2,000 years. But the Jews never relinquished their bond. Jews in prayer always turned toward Jerusalem. The Arks, the sacred chests that hold the Torah's scrolls in synagogues throughout the world, face Jerusalem. Each year, the Jews in Passover say, "Next year, in Jerusalem." These same words are pronounced at the end of Yom Kippur. Jewish wedding ceremonies are marked by sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem. The groom cites a biblical verse, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning."

Jerusalem is much less embedded in the Muslim culture. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca, not Jerusalem. The Old Testament mentions Jerusalem, or its alternative name Zion, a total of 457 times. The Koran does not mention Jerusalem once. Muhammad, who founded Islam in 622 A.D., was born and raised in what is now Saudi Arabia; he never set foot in Jerusalem.

The religious connection to the city took root decades after his death—and after the Muslim conquest of the then largely Christian city—when the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al Aqsa Mosque were built in 688 A.D. and 691 A.D. to proclaim Islam's supremacy over Christianity and its most important shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Al Aqsa means "the farthest Mosque" in Arabic, the same phrase used in a key passage of the Koran called the "Night Journey," where Muhammad arrives at Al Aqsa on a winged steed, accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel. His ascent to heaven is what ties Jerusalem to divine revelation in Islamic belief. After the divine meeting with Allah, however, Muhammad returns to Mecca.

It is of note, too, that Muhammad died in 632 A.D., nearly 50 years before the first construction of the Al Aqsa Mosque was completed. This is why Jerusalem never replaced the importance of Mecca in the world of Islam. Indeed, in the 1,300 years that various Islamic dynasties ruled Jerusalem, not one Islamic dynasty ever made the city its capital.

Jerusalem's importance appears when non-Muslims, including the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews controlled or captured the city—and only then did Islamic leaders claim Jerusalem as their third most holy city after Mecca and Medina. However, the national covenant of the Palestine Liberation Organization, written in 1964, never mentions Jerusalem. It was added only after Israel regained control of the city in 1967.

Jerusalem has never been the capital of any political entity, except that of the Jewish State. Jews have been the majority in Jerusalem for the past 150 years. At the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to 65,000 Arabs. Before 1865, the entire population lived behind the Old City walls that are today the eastern part of the city. When the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, both Jews and Arabs began to build in these new areas.

Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Jewish nation. The Israelis have no intention of ever again being prevented from living throughout the city as they were between 1948 and 1967 when, under Jordanian control, Jewish communities were ruthlessly and violently driven out of areas where they had lived for centuries. Israel has a very different perspective. To Israelis, there is no Jewish Western Jerusalem and Eastern Arab Jerusalem but simply a mosaic of people who are mixed and cannot be separated or divided, according to the old 1949 Armistice Line.

Now in the area that is referred to as East Jerusalem, that is, an area north, south, and east of the city's 1967 borders, there are roughly a half a million Jews and Arabs living in intertwined neighborhoods. There are no entirely Palestinian areas that can be split off from the rest of Jerusalem. All neighborhoods are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem, so building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.

Ramat Shlomo, the area of the proposed new construction at the center of the most recent row with the United States is a thriving community of over 100,000 Jews located between two larger Jewish communities, Ramat and French Hill. Its growth would not interfere with the contiguity of new Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. In every peace treaty that has ever been discussed, these areas would remain a part of Israel.

No wonder the Israelis reacted so strongly when Obama called Ramat "a settlement." This was a change in the policies pursued by many previous U.S. administrations. For over 43 years, there has been a tacit agreement about construction, never something that constituted a problem in negotiations. The new policy was therefore seen as an Obama administration effort to force Israel to accept the division of Jerusalem, even before the peace talks start, taking yet another negotiating card off the table for the Israelis.

But what the world never remembers is what the Israelis can never forget. When Jordan controlled the eastern part of the city, including the Walled City, the Temple, and the ancient Wailing Wall, it permitted reasonably free access to Christian holy places. But the Jews? They were denied any access to the Jewish holy places. This was a fundamental departure from the tradition of freedom of religious worship in the Holy Land, which had evolved over centuries—not to speak of a violation of the undertaking given by Jordan in the Armistice Agreement concluded with Israel in 1949. Nobody should expect the Jews to risk that again.

Since Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967, it has faithfully protected the rights and security of Christians, Arabs, and Jews. Muslims have enjoyed the very freedom the Jews were denied under Jordanian occupation. Christians now control the Ten Stages of the Cross; Muslims control the Dome of the Rock. Yet the Palestinians often stone Jewish civilians praying at the Western Wall below. Their leaders and imams repeatedly deny the Jewish connection to Jewish holy sites. Freedom of religion is an American value that should not be compromised.

That is not all. Dividing Jerusalem would put Palestinian forces and rockets a few miles from Israel's Knesset. Also, the Jewish neighborhoods bordering Arab neighborhoods would be within range of light weapon and machine-gun fire. This is exactly what happened after the Oslo Accords, when the Palestinians fired from Beit Jalla toward Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhoods, wounding scores of residents.

The vast majority of Israelis believe Jerusalem must be shared and not divided. Even the great Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, who made the Oslo agreement, said, "There are not two Jerusalems; there is only one Jerusalem." The status of Jerusalem will be on the table if and when Palestinians and Israelis talk. But Obama's policy reversal has yet again given the Palestinians every reason not to negotiate. Now, the positions of both the Palestinians and the Israelis have hardened and the possibility of serious negotiations is again thrown into chaos

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