Right after the War of Independence, prime minister David Ben-Gurion faced
inexorably difficult pressures over the future of Jerusalem.
planned to press its case for internationalization. Its grounds were General
Assembly Resolution 181, adopted in 1947 and known as the partition plan, which
not only advocated the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in former British
Mandatory Palestine, but also recommended putting Jerusalem under UN control as
a corpus separatum, or separate entity.
True, the resolution was not
legally binding; it had been forcibly rejected by the Arab states. Moreover, the
UN never established the special regime for Jerusalem that it proposed. In fact,
it failed to dispatch any forces to save the Old City when reports streamed in
that its ancient synagogues were being systematically destroyed. Nevertheless,
even after the war ended, leading diplomatic players in the UN, including the US
government, came back and insisted on resurrecting the idea of international
Ben-Gurion stood in the Knesset on December 5, 1949 and, in no
uncertain terms, rejected the demand for internationalization. He looked back at
what had happened during the War of Independence, explaining that the UN “did
not lift a finger” when invading Arab armies tried to destroy the holy city. It
was only because of the efforts of the newly created IDF that the siege of
Jerusalem had been lifted and the rest of its Jewish population saved.
Ben-Gurion declared that Israel no longer viewed Resolution 181 as having any
further “moral force” with regard to Jerusalem.
Four days later the
General Assembly responded, again insisting that Jerusalem “should be placed
under a permanent international regime.”
Ben-Gurion nonetheless stood his
ground and declared on December 13, 1949 that the Knesset and the rest of the
government would be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
60 years, internationalization was a complete failure. And yet it now appears it
is coming back.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert has put forward a
proposal in this paper (“The terms for an accord,” September 24) for the Old
City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, in which
this area will be overseen by “an international trusteeship.”
to Olmert, Israel would be expected to renounce its sovereignty over the holiest
sites of the Jewish people, like the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, located
in an area called “the Holy Basin” by negotiators in the past, and which extends
beyond the Old City to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of
How is it that an idea which spelled disaster to the country’s
founders can suddenly be put back on the political agenda? What happened? Does
this readiness come from a sense that with the reunification of Jerusalem as a
result of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has less right to sovereignty there than
it did in 1949? Such a view has no basis.
The Jewish people had restored
their majority in the Old City already in 1863, according to the British
consulate at the time – well before any other place in modern Israel. And after
1967, international lawyers such as like Stephen Schwebel, who would become
president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, pointed to the
fact that while Jordan occupied east Jerusalem after a war of aggression in
1948, Israel captured the very same areas in a war of self-defense, and as a
result its title was stronger than that of other claimants at the
Moreover, by its actions since 1967, Israel has proven that it was
the first protector of Jerusalem to truly defend the interests of all three
Perhaps some of its political elites have forgotten
what was axiomatic for Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog, but that does not diminish
its historical rights.
It could be that today there is a naive belief
that internationalization might work, since the UN in 2010 will be better than
the UN in 1948. But there is no basis for such a conclusion. In the past 20
years, international oversight of areas of conflict has ended with one disaster
after another. In 1994, a UN force in Rwanda, made up of mostly Belgian
paratroopers deployed to oversee implementation of the Arusha Peace Accord,
withdrew and abandoned the Tutsi tribe to acts of genocide by Hutu supremists.
The UN Security Council delayed any effective action to stop the killing, which
resulted in 800,000 deaths.
A year later, UN peacekeepers in Bosnia
abandoned the Muslims they were supposed to protect in the town of Srebrenica.
As a result, the Bosnian Serb army slaughtered more than 8,000 innocent
Since 2003, the UN has been unable to take decisive action and
put an end to the genocide in Darfur by the Sudanese regime, given the interests
of the Arab states and the Chinese. Multilateral machinery, whether based on the
UN or on a consortium of states, remains notoriously slow.
there is no recent international development that might lead one to believe that
“an international trust,” rather than Israel, might actually work and protect
How is it possible to explain the difference between
Ben-Gurion and the leaders who put forward from time to time the idea of
internationalization? Israel at the time of Ben-Gurion was actually much weaker
than it is today; its population in 1948 was a little more than 800,000. But it
had something which unfortunately has been lacking in many who would renounce
its sovereignty over the Old City: Israel in 1948 had a deep conviction in the
justice of its cause – a rare commodity today in many influential
Those putting forward the idea of internationalization are
completely divorced from the sentiments of the people. Poll after poll in the
past decade indicate that Israelis are not prepared to concede Jerusalem, and
especially the holy sites of the Jewish people.
The problem is that when
one of Israel’s leaders suggests that the Old City be put under an international
regime, international diplomats begin to think the government may entertain such
proposals. Ben-Gurion was able to stand up to the UN General Assembly in 1949
because the world understood that Jerusalem represented a red line from which
neither he nor any other representative of Israel was prepared to
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Today, Israel must reestablish that red line clearly, for the
impression left by these proposals badly weakens its ability to defend itself.
They imply that it has lost its will and might be prepared to concede what has
been – and will remain – one of the identifying core values defining the
identity of the Jewish people.