The issue of Jerusalem will never go away

By Jonathan Power

For the present, the suggestion of a UN Security Council fiefdom only extends to the Temple Mount, but once that principle is accepted the possibilities for geographical extension to include some of the neighbourhoods around shouldn't be so difficult to swallow

The European Union’s new report on the status of Jerusalem may have reminded those who have forgotten what Yasser Arafat always said, “The Arab leader who will give up Jerusalem has not been born.”

The EU report, besides highlighting the long Palestinian preoccupation with Jerusalem, also underlines how central to Israel’s present day strategy of Palestinian exclusion Jerusalem is. The report argues that the effort to establish illegal Jewish settlements in and around East Jerusalem and to use the route of its separation wall is “to seal off most of East Jerusalem, with its 230,000 Palestinian residents, from the West Bank” and to create “a de facto annexation of Palestinian land”.

Poets from England’s eighteenth century William Blake to Israel’s contemporary Yehuda Amichai have sung the praises of a heavenly Jerusalem, a city without strife or rancour, war or bitterness, envy, acquisitiveness or hatred.

But how do we get there? There can be no question that at the time of ending the British mandate Jerusalem belonged to the Palestinians. They lost West Jerusalem in their ill-judged war with Israel in 1948. And only in 1967 during the Six Day War did Israel capture and annex East Jerusalem and its Old City. (But it did allow Islamic authorities to continue to exercise control over the two ancient mosques and the great stone plaza atop the Temple Mount.) At one time even the US itself recognized there would be no peace until this occupation was reversed, hence its vote for UN Resolution 242 in 1967 that called on Israel to withdraw from “territories occupied”.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Jewish identity is now so wound up with the idea of Jerusalem (a fuzzy concept if ever there was one, since present day Jerusalem is four times the size of the one that existed in 1948) that to prise Israel loose by a process of capitulation is not possible.

But just as obvious was one of President Bill Clinton’s mistakes at the Camp David negotiations. He was profoundly wrong at its conclusion to berate Arafat publicly for not compromising on Jerusalem. Clinton looked at the enormous compromises Israel’s then leader Ehud Barak had made and, in the detached manner of Western diplomacy, assumed this was a very fair deal. It was, indeed, but it wasn’t enough. Jerusalem, as Arafat said, will never be given up, for anything.

It is a matter of elemental historical justice that at the very least the Arab parts of East Jerusalem be returned to Palestine, as long as the Jews have free, untrammelled, access to their sacred site, the Western Wall.

Perhaps the protagonists should consider internationalising part of East Jerusalem. For the present, the suggestion of a UN Security Council fiefdom only extends to the Temple Mount, but once that principle is accepted the possibilities for geographical extension to include some of the neighbourhoods around shouldn’t be so difficult to swallow.

The issue of the ownership of Jerusalem and its parts is a popular decision par excellence. The governments involved cannot go forward on this issue unless they carry the overwhelming majority of their people with them. With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave his rightist party, Likud, and launch a party more attuned to the centre of the political spectrum, mainstream Israeli public opinion is now back in the political picture. Instead of Israel being hostage to its extremes it can begin to have a more rational debate on final peace terms.

This is the moment for inspired religious leadership — to take the steps that will allow Jerusalem, a city sacred to three monotheistic faiths, to acquire, at least in some of its aspects, the earthly prototype of the heavenly Jerusalem of the poets.

Let us see if the work of imams, rabbis and priests can bear some fruit. The secular politicians may be the ones doing the negotiations and ordering the compromises but it is the teachers of the three great deistic religions who must exert their mandate of compassion, goodness, tolerance and brotherhood.

These traits of virtue, as common to them all as is their God, will be tested in the hottest of fires. Have their peoples imbibed the message of their faiths? Or have they been diverted along life’s way by false principles over true substance and by nationalistic myth over historic perspective? At the time of this great new alignment in Israeli politics this must be the moment to start preaching more earnestly and convincingly.

The writer is a leading columnist on international affairs, human rights and peace issues. He syndicates his columns with some 50 papers around the world

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