Myth and reality

Prior to the Six Day War, the majority of Israelis accepted divided Jerusalem as a fact of life.

October 4, 2007 11:13
4 minute read.
aerial view of temple mount and western wall 298

temple mount kotel 224.8. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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Moshe Amirav has done Israel a useful service by boldly tearing away the heavy curtain surrounding the Jerusalem issue. For 40 years sermons about "united Jerusalem" have acquired an almost mythical dimension. Indeed, the possible messianic implications of Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem have been cultivated by many pious believers, but even more so by cynical politicians. It was bound to explode one day because the sermons have become hollow and stale, with diminishing connection to reality. In his youth, Amirav was an ardent member of the Betar youth movement, dreaming of sneaking to the Western Wall when it was still in Jordanian hands. As a paratrooper in the Six Day War, he took part in breaking through to the Wall, feeling profound excitement at being one of its liberators. His ideological credentials enabled him to work with former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and other Likud leaders, but when his doubts about the policy on Jerusalem increased, he moved away from his previous orientation, becoming at one stage an adviser to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and finally to Ehud Barak when he served as prime minister. Amirav makes it clear that the failure to settle the issue of sovereignty on the Temple Mount was entirely Yasser Arafat's fault. Barak was prepared in 2000 to accept the idea of shared control over the Mount, which he saw as a price worth paying for peace and international legitimacy. The Right was outraged by Barak's readiness to consider then-US president Bill Clinton's proposal to divide control over the Mount between Israel (for the Jewish sacred sites) and the Arabs (for the parts sacred to Muslims). Arafat, however, rejected Clinton's compromise formula. Nevertheless, the extreme Left couldn't swallow the idea of Arafat emerging as the villain. Six national goals relating to Jerusalem were promulgated after June 1967:

  • Striving to give our sovereignty international legitimacy;
  • Encouraging Jews to settle in east Jerusalem in order to consolidate Israeli control over that part of the city;
  • Increasing the Jewish majority in the city to prevent it from becoming bi-national;
  • Initiating projects to make Jerusalem an economic center;
  • Achieving Israelization, equality and coexistence with the Arabs in east Jerusalem;
  • Trying to separate the "holy places" issue from the political conflict. Amirav maintains that none of these goals has been attained, and offers evidence to support his opinion. He points out that prior to the Six Day War, the majority of Israelis, including some prominent writers, accepted the divided city as a fact of life. The poet Haim Guri has observed that in Natan Alterman's poetry Jerusalem is not mentioned at all. David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann understood already in the 1930s that establishing a Jewish state that included the Old City was unlikely. When faced in 1947 with this dilemma, both concluded that in order to have a chance of gaining a Jewish state (and not a UN trusteeship), we would have to let Jerusalem be placed under an international authority. The international consensus was that neither the Arabs nor the Jews should be given exclusive control, and numerous UN resolutions were adopted to that effect. Following the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion was reluctant to proclaim Jerusalem the capital of the state. His concern was that the international reaction would be harsh. It was only on December 13, 1949, following UN General Assembly approval of an Australian draft resolution calling for the "internationalization" of the city, that Ben-Gurion felt forced to declare that the government's offices would be transferred to west Jerusalem. He tried to minimize the adverse reactions by announcing that the "transfer of the government offices [from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem] would continue." Theodor Herzl, incidentally, didn't consider Jerusalem as part of the future Jewish state. Ben-Gurion spoke in 1948 about making the city the "center of world Jewry" - its heart, but not necessarily its capital. But in 1947 Ben-Gurion said the seat of government might be in the Negev. Moving the government to west Jerusalem caused a cooling of day-to-day diplomatic ties. Embassies stayed in Tel Aviv, but after a while foreign diplomats started to come to the various Jerusalem-based ministries. Some Latin American and African countries quietly moved their missions to west Jerusalem. Israel's control of east Jerusalem following the Six Day War didn't affect the attitude of these countries. But when, in 1980, Menachem Begin called on the Knesset to approve the resolution that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, there were 13 embassies in the city. All the major countries, including the US, expressed strong opposition to the resolution, and all left the city. The last two packed up in 2006. The harm caused by what was perceived as Israeli unilateral policy can be seen also in the statistics cited by Amirav. Between 1980 and 2005 311,000 Jews left the city, while only 208,000 came in. Meanwhile, the Arab population of the united city grew from 68,000 in 1967 to 244,800 in 2005. In 1982 the Likud government decided to pay lip service to Jerusalem but to "transfer resources designated to strengthen Jerusalem in order to build up settlements around the city." The Arabs who in the mid-'90s represented 30% of the city's population received only 5% of the city's area. That is how the fifth goal was honored. Notwithstanding all these developments, the policy of all the Israeli governments was to prohibit entry of Jews to the Temple Mount because of fear that confrontations there could cause bloodshed. The old Israeli assumption that the Jerusalem issue should be placed last on the Israeli-Arab agenda has proven mistaken. A pragmatic approach based predominantly on Clinton's ideas of 2000 is probably the only way.

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