The United States and the indivisibility of Jerusalem

In its search for a settlement, it is to be hoped that the Obama administration will not take any steps to disturb the unity and peace of Jerusalem.

November 6, 2013 22:27
4 minute read.
A man prays at the Mount of Olives cemetery.

Mount of Olives Jerusalem skyline panorama 390 R. (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)


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The US State Department has a favorite mantra: that Washington’s policy on Jerusalem has not changed since the status of the city arose as part of the Partition Plan in the Truman era.

This, of course, is quite inaccurate, since in the initial period the US supported the original scheme for the internationalization of the city under the United Nations and clung to that policy until 1967, although it was a practical impossibility.

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It abandoned that position when Jerusalem, in its entirety, came under Israeli control as a result of the Six Day War. Washington recognized that Israel’s experience over the course of the previous 19 years had seared the national consciousness of the Jewish state.

During that period Israelis, and Jews generally, were denied access to the holiest site of the Jewish religion, the Western Wall, the remaining structure of the ancient Temple. This constituted not only outright racial and religious discrimination, it was a blatant violation of the Jordanian-Israeli Armistice Agreement signed in 1949 that had ensured access to the holy sites of each party. Israel unified the divided city, and opened it up to the adherents of all faiths.

Israel’s policy found expression in the declaration of defense minister Moshe Dayan: “We have returned to the Wall, never again to depart from it.”

Clearly enough, the Johnson administration recognized that the status quo ante in Jerusalem was never to be restored, so the Johnson peace proposals were limited to calling for “recognition of the special interest of three great religions in the holy places of Jerusalem.”

Implicitly, this called for Jerusalem to remain a united city under Israeli administration. Security Council Resolution 242, the fundamental UN document on resolving matters in the wake of the Six Day War, made no mention of Jerusalem (nor, for that matter, did it mention anything about a Palestinian state.) The absence of any reference to Jerusalem, said ambassador Arthur Goldberg, was “deliberate.”

Upon the entry of the Nixon administration into office, it promoted a new scheme for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute, namely the Rogers Plan, which, while it acknowledged a Jordanian interest in Jerusalem, also emphasized that Jerusalem should be “a unified city.”

Each successive administration recognized that Jerusalem was never to be divided again. Thus, while various presidents have adopted different attitudes to the question of the status of east Jerusalem – some implying that Israeli sovereignty extended there, and others denying such sovereignty – all adhered firmly to the position that the city must remain united. Presumably, this remains the position of the State Department today.

For its part, the US Congress has gone a step further and has declared by concurrent resolution that it: “(1) acknowledges that Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of the State of Israel;” “(2) strongly believes that Jerusalem must remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic religious groups are protected.”

The latter position also reflects the stand of the Israeli government. Israel has maintained that under international law Israeli sovereignty extends over Jerusalem in its entirety. The Oslo Agreement, which posits the question of Jerusalem as one of the issues that was left to be resolved between the parties in “the permanent status negotiations,” did not, according to Israel, relate to the question of sovereignty.

It bore exclusively on “the ethnic religious” rights in relation to the Holy Sites of each faith in the City.

This stand, it should be noted, was not enunciated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was proclaimed by the promoter of the Oslo accords, Shimon Peres.

In a television interview in 1994, Peres declared: “We are very adamant about our position. Jerusalem will not be redivided. It will not be a Berlin.

We shall establish neither barriers nor walls there.”

And Yitzchak Rabin stated categorically in an address to the Knesset: “There is no State of Israel without Jerusalem and no peace without Jerusalem undivided.”

“United Jerusalem,” he said, “will not be open to negotiation. It has been and will forever be the capital of the Jewish people, under Israeli sovereignty.”

The former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, dismissed division for practical reasons: “Divided sovereignty in a united city simply cannot work. The proposition is a contradiction.

Two legal systems? Two police forces? The barbed wire and the mines would soon return.”

Israel’s approach to the issue of Jerusalem derives also from its experience over the critical years 1948-1967, when a divided city precluded access for its own people and for the citizens of other countries.

Preserving the unity of the city is essential, not only for the welfare of the people of Jerusalem, but for the welfare of the entire international community that seeks to enjoy the privilege of freedom of access to their respective holy shrines.

In its search for a settlement, it is to be hoped that the Obama White House will not take any steps to disturb the unity and peace of Jerusalem.

The author, a professor at the Hebrew University, is the author of Jerusalem in America’s Foreign Policy.

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