We knew it would come to this. Over the weekend, the Obama administration showed just how radical the shift in U.S. policy toward Israel has been. It has demanded that the Israeli government withdraw the municipal approval of a building project in the Eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The land that houses the old, run-down Shepherd Hotel, which is to be replaced by an apartment building, was lawfully purchased by Jews. No matter: That part of town is seen by Washington as a "settlement."
Today, U.S. officials made it even clearer when they reportedly told both sides that they see no difference between Eastern Jerusalem and rogue settler outposts in the middle of the West Bank. Understandably, the Israeli government has rejected the directive, and some reports suggest that the Israelis may have deliberately leaked the demand, for it plays to Netanyahu's image as standing tall against American pressure.
Washington has a longstanding tradition of doublespeak when dealing with Jerusalem. On the one hand, Obama himself couldn't help but declare his commitment (subsequently retracted) to a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty while campaigning for office -- and he even promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, which is not the capital by any definition of the term, to Jerusalem.
At the same time, he is not the first presidential candidate to make that promise, nor the first one to forget about it when in office, in the process ignoring the express will of Congress. It's those pesky State Department folks, you see, who keep advising successive presidents that now is not the right time. For 60 years, Israel's executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government have found their seat in Jerusalem, and Israel's "closest ally" still keeps its embassy by the beach. At least we Jerusalemites don't have to worry about all those diplomat vehicles taking our precious parking spots. It gets weirder. The United States does not appear to recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem -- West or East. A federal-court ruling earlier this month underscores the simple fact that any American citizen born in Jerusalem, regardless of where he lives, gets a U.S. passport with the country listed as simply "Jerusalem." U.S. citizens living in Jerusalem cannot get help at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv; they are directed to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which answers directly to Washington, rather than to the embassy.
Again, this stuff has been going on for a long time. It begins with a fundamental attitude on the part of successive American administrations, really dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan putting the city under "universal" governance. The point is, the reasoning goes, we don't fully see the logic in giving Israel full sovereignty of Jerusalem. It's not just about placating the Arabs, although that's a big part of it; it is, after all, a city of international importance. Why should only Israel have it?
So in the interest of fostering a constructive dialogue with an American diplomatic universe that seems to have no interest whatever in Israel's position on the subject, I'd like to toss out a few brief reminders.
1. Israel should have Jerusalem, first of all, because it already does. Jews have been a majority of the city consecutively since the middle of the 19th century. There is no issue here of occupation, of a Jewish minority displacing Palestinians in their land. Over the past century and a half, the city was divided for 19 years by an accident of war, split between Israel and Jordan, neither of which occupations having earned international recognition; and then it was reunited.
Thus was born the infamous and irrelevant "Green Line," something that today exists on maps only. The Jordanians cleansed the eastern city of its Jews and burned down its synagogues. Then the Jews came back in 1967 and gave the city a greater degree of not only economic success but also religious, cultural, and political freedom than it has ever enjoyed under any of the different Muslim, Christian, and pagan regimes that preceded them. Consider, by contrast, the treatment of Jewish holy sites under Palestinian rule: Joseph's Tomb, for example, was immediately set on fire, as were all the synagogues of the Gaza Strip. At the risk of "prejudicing" the outcome of negotiations through the employment of argument, why on earth should it not be Israel's?
2. Israel should have Jerusalem because it is more important to Jews than it is to Muslims (or Christians, or anyone else). This may sound vaguely discriminatory or religionist or unpopularly theological or just unfunny, but the fact is that there is a difference between the "most important" holy city and the "third most important" city that is far more than quantitative. This is the geographical heart of biblical Israel, the focus of its golden age of David and Solomon, the political-messianic-metahistorical dream focus of three millennia of Jewish prayer. This is the heart of everything, and that heart beats not on Herzl Boulevard or Jaffa Road by the Central Bus Station but in Eastern Jerusalem, at the site where the First and Second Temples stood for about a thousand years before the glorious Romans burned them down.
3. Israel should have Jerusalem because there is no practical way to divide the city that would satisfy both sides. Never mind the bizarre MTA-subway-style map that would ensue, intertwining all the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in the city. The real problem is that Israelis and Palestinians have totally irreconcilable views as to how such a division would work in practice -- a difference so wide as to make the entire endeavor a pipe dream.
Israelis see any separation as similar to the one Israel has with Egypt and Jordan: a full border, with strict crossings and a fundamental divorce of economic life. This is essential to any deal -- the entire idea of giving up land in exchange for peace comes with the heavy baggage of decades of terror attacks. But such a separation, we have been told repeatedly, is anathema to the Palestinians themselves, who rely heavily on Israeli jobs for their living and see any real separation a form of "siege" -- turning their territory into a "prison." (If you don't believe this, ask yourself how the Gazans would react if Israel were to lift the sea and air restrictions on the Strip: Would they say "we are now free" or "we are still under siege"?) This problem is little discussed but will become a deal breaker the moment anyone starts talking seriously about borders or dividing the city.
Jerusalem is not just a consensus issue in Israel but also a deeply personal one. There is no erasing the thousands of years of yearning for Jerusalem in Jewish texts, nor the heart-wrenching failure of Jewish forces to capture East Jerusalem in 1948, nor the national catharsis of its reunification in the Six Day War, nor over four decades of astonishing development and construction and tourism and flourishing of religious life for all faiths since then.
Reprinted with permission from Commentary Magazine.