All Writings
August 1, 1991

‘If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem’

There is no issue in Israel as highly charged emotionally and politically as the future status of Jerusalem. By addressing the question of Jerusalem in the context of the peace process first, not last, the United States could help alleviate Israel's concerns regarding its most critical national requirement.

To that end, the United States should begin the process by recognizing united Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. According to a recent Israeli poll, such an American initiative would engender widespread sympathy among the Israelis toward making important concessions to the Arabs. In 1984, President Reagan threatened to veto a congressional measure to move the American Embassy from Tei Aviv to Jerusalem on the ground that such a move would result in an Arab backlash against the United States. The measure was never brought to a full vote.

In the post-Gulf-War era, however, the Bush administration enjoys considerably greater influence in the Arab world than any of its predecessors – a rare situation that could support such an initiative without inflicting lasting damage on U.S.-Arab relations. This may prove to be the only way to convince the Israelis that making territorial concessions in the West Bank would not leave the future status of Jerusalem in question; an eventuality that the Israelis could not tolerate.

Jerusalem, the Israelis argue, represents that present and past of the people of Israel without which there is no future. Throughout the centuries, the hope for the return to Jerusalem has provided the main source of strength guiding and guarding the Jews in their dispersion.

History reveals no other people so completely and irrevocably fused to a single place, and neither centuries of exile nor persecution nor any ruler's edict has been able to sever that attachment. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning," sang the Psalmist.

The Jews have never forgotten that long before Jerusalem became sacred to Christianity, it was holy to them, and that before Jerusalem was identified as the mystical destination of Mohammed's night journey and his visit to God's presence, it was consecrated by the people of Israel.

For the Israelis, 19 years of Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem, from 1948 to 1967, is seen as an aberration, a period during which Jews were forbidden to worship at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine. Desecration of Jewish holy places was rampant (34 out of 35 of the city's synagogues were destroyed, along with many Jewish cemeteries, including the main cemetery on the Mount of Olives). Repeated efforts made by both Israel and its friends at the United Nations to find an amicable solution to allow Jews to worship at their holiest sight were to no avail.

Hoping still to regain access to their holy places through negotiation, the Israeli military at no time contemplated the capture of East Jerusalem by force during the war of 1967. Failing to heed Israel's plea to refrain from entering the conflict, however, and against the advice of his own generals, Jordan's King Hussein decided to enter the war. Within three days, East Jerusalem was captured. It was as though God had hardened King Hussein's heart so that Jerusalem would finally be liberated. Thus, the recapture of Jerusalem is viewed by the majority of Israelis as the fulfillment of the historic promise — an act of providence.

Once East Jerusalem was under Israeli control, the Israelis vowed that Jerusalem will never again be redivided, abandoned or surrendered. "Without Jerusalem," said Israel's former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, "there can be no state of Israel, and Israel's enemies know this too well."

"To consign Jerusalem to Arab rule again, or to place it under some vague international regime," said former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, "is to invite a replay of the malicious destruction of Jewish holy places that took place under Jordanian rule." The Israelis recognize that the Arabs have been living for centuries in Jerusalem and have every right to continue to live there. They understand that the unification of East and West Jerusalem must not jeopardize the Arabs* absolute right to direct their religious and cultural affairs without Israeli interference.

For this reason, successive Israeli governments have made it clear, both in word and in deed, that the freedom to worship at the holy places for Jews, Moslems and other religious communities is sacred and will always remain inviolable in Jerusalem and wherever holy shrines are located throughout Israel.

Within the framework of a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital, however, the judicial status of non-Jews, particularly Palestinians living in Jerusalem, is open to discussion, as is the international framework within which that status is exercised. As Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek recently said, "There is room for functional division of authority, for internal autonomy of each community and for functional sovereignty."

Recognizing Jerusalem at this particular juncture, said one Bush administration official, would seem as though Israel is being rewarded for its defiant policy of continuing the building of settlements in the occupied territories. This is not so. United Jerusalem is a historical fact and a reality that the United States and the Arab states will have to face. By delaying its recognition of Jerusalem, the United States is giving rise to false expectations in the Arab world that the future of Jerusalem may still be negotiable — an inference that severely hinders the peace process.

While Israelis may differ politically regarding the nature of the concessions they may have to make for peace, they are firmly and unequivocally united in their stand on Jerusalem. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, especially by the Arabs, would mean the acceptance of Israel's historic national right to its homeland. That is why many Israelis view Jerusalem as the key — and necessary first step — to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.