Capital Folly

Review of Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City, by Bernard Wasserstein. 412 pp., Profile Books, 2001.

Avi Shlaim

London Review of Books, 21 March 2002.

More than any other capital city in the world, Jerusalem demonstrates the power of symbols in international politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most intense, bitter, and protracted conflicts of modern times, and the Jerusalem question lies at the heart of this conflict. Religious zealotry and secular jingoism combine to make Jerusalem one of the most, if not the most sensitive and seemingly intractable issues in this conflict. The Oslo accord which lauched the Palestinians on the road to self-government simply by-passed Jerusalem and the other difficult and divisive issues in the dispute, such as the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and the borders of the Palestinian entity.  They were deferred until the negotiations on the final status of the territories due to begin towards the end of the five-year transition period. All these issues were belatedly placed on the table at the summit conferece convened by Bill Clinton at Camp David in July 2000. Jerusalem, however, was the issue that ultimately led to the failure of the summit and the breakdown of the Oslo peace process.

Jerusalem is no stranger to strife, conflict or controversy. Its spiritual resonance for the three great monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- make it so because religious rivalries are notoriously difficult to resolve.  The political prestige that goes with possession of the city is another ingredient in its long and blood-soaked history. Politics and religion make an explosive mixture and nowhere more so than in Jerusalem. Between its foundation and its capture by the Israelis in 1967, Jerusalem is said to have been conquered 37 times. It has been on the international diplomatic agenda for a century and a half. When Arthur Koestler went to Jerusalem during the 1948 war, he was filled with gloom at the ‘international quarrelling, haggling and mediation’ that seemed in store. ‘No other town,’ he wrote, ‘ has caused such continuous waves of killing, rape and unholy misery over the centuries as this Holy City.’ In its current form the Jerusalem question contains two separate elements: sovereingnty over the city and the status of the holy places. The former is contested by two national groups, the latter by three religions. Anyone seeking to understand the Jerusalem question should start with Bernard Wasserstein’s thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and strikingly fair-minded book.

Psychlogists have long been aware of the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ that afflicts some visitors to the city, especially Western Christian tourists. The most common symptoms are to assume the identity of a Biblical character, to undergo mystical experiences, and to succumb to the delusion of possessing supranatural powers. Wasserstein points out at the outset that Jerusalem is not just a problem but also an emotion, above all a religious emotion. Veneration for Jerusalem by Jews, Christians, and Muslims runs deep and it is the duty of the historian, as he sees it,  to record this religious fervour but not to succumb to it. From this eminently sensible starting point, Wasserstein goes on to develop his rather iconoclastic argument that politicians of all religions have deliberately inflated the religious importance of Jerusalem in order to serve their own political ends.

When the Ottoman Turks captured Jerusalem in 1516, it was an obscure, provincial backwater with a population of under 15,000. During the four centuries of Ottoman rule, it did not develop into a major administrative centre but only served as the capital of a district that formed part of the province of Damascus. What the Ottomans did do, during the reign of  Suleiman the Magnificent, was to build the girdle of walls around the city that are still intact today. Under the Ottomans, the various religious groups were left to run their own affairs and to administer their own institutions with little interference from the central government. The Jerusalem question in its modern form arose as a by-product of the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its central feature in the first phase was the struggle over the Christian holy places. As Ottoman power waned, the other great powers sought to extend their authority in and through the holy city. The methods they employed in the pursuit of power and prestige are laid bare with wry humour in a chapter on ‘The Wars of the Consuls’. These methods included the exploitation of religious sentiment, patronage of local proteges, and the construction of dependent institutions such as churches, monasteries, convents, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and colleges.

Having told the sorry tale of intrigues, petty squabbles, endless disputes, and antagonisms, Wasserstein gives credit where credit is due. He notes that during the whole of the late Ottoman period, there were no significant instances of mass communal violence in Jerusalem. Inter-communal relations of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, while often fraught with acrimony and sectarian contempt, were contained within the framework of law and civil peace. What the consular wars do illustrate is the propensity of the Jerusalem question to inflame and aggravate relations between the powers: ‘Seized upon as a sacred cause, Jerusalem proved a handy pretext for warmongers with much larger objectives.’ Alas, this feature of the holy city has not faded with the passage of time.

Britain governed Jerusalem, within the framework of the British mandate over Palestine, from 1920 until 1948. Nominally, Britain was responsible to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations but in reality Palestine was governed as if it were a British crown colony. Although British rule in Jerusalem lasted only three decades, it transformed the city and paved the way to its eventual partition. This was Jerusalem’s first Christian administration since the Crusades, yet it granted unprecedented privileges to the Supreme Moslim Council and sponsored the establishment of a Jewish National Home. Breaking with the Ottoman legacy, the British made Jerusalem a major administrative centre and the seat of the High Commissioner for Palestine. The result was a profound change in Jerusalem’s relationship to Palestine. For the first time in its modern history, Jerusalem was a capital city. The status of the local elites, both Muslim and Jewish, was enhanced by their proximity to the seat of power. The British, for their part, tried to be even-handed. But reconciling the claims of the two nascent national movements proved beyond their power. Both Arabs and Jews became progressively alienated and staged revolts against British rule, the former in the late 1930s, the latter in the late 1940s. By the time the mandate reached its inglorious end in May of 1948, there was precious little goodwill left towards Britain on either side of the Arab-Jewish divide. 

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations passed the resolution for partitioning Palestine into two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, but with an international regime for Jerusalem which was to be treated as a corpus separatum. Formally, the British  remained neutral but in practice they were hostile to the plan for an independent Palestinian state because it was bound to be ruled by the mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who had thrown in his lot with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Their secret objective was to promote the partition of Palestine between the Zionists and King Abdullah of Jordan, their loyal ally. This was precisely the outcome of the war for Palestine. Towards the end of that war, Jerusalem once again became a burning issue on the international agenda. Most members of the UN still supported an international regime for Jerusalem but the powers on the ground, Jordan and Israel, were united in an unholy alliance to partition the holy city between themselves. After the guns fell silent, Jordan continued to rule East Jerusalem and Israel continued to rule West Jerusalem until the six days that shook the Middle East in the summer of 1967.

By taking his country to war, King Hussein lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem that his grandfather had incorporated into to Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan by the Act of Union of 1950. Jordan’s participation in this war was largely symbolic but the price it paid was a heavy one. On 7 June 1967, Israeli forces captured east Jerusalem as part of their sweep through the West Bank. At noon that day, Moshe Dayan, the defence minister, went to the Western Wall and declared that Jerusalem had been ‘liberated’: ‘We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our Holy Places, never to part from it again.’ Contrary to the view held by most Arabs, Israel had no prior plan for keeping the West Bank or east Jerusalem. But the victory unleashed  powerful currents of  religious messianism and secular irridentism that no government could possibly hold in check even if it wanted to. The Zionist movement’s moderate position on Jerusalem disappeared overnight. Suddenly, life in the Jewish state without Zion, one of the Biblical names for Jerusalem, became difficult to imagine. On 27 June, in a remarkable display of national unity, the Knesset enacted legislation to extend Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration to Greater Jerusalem which included the Old City. This amounted to annexation in all but name, opening a veritable Pandora’s box.

Over the next quarter of a century, the central political figure in Israeli Jerusalem was its mayor, Teddy Kollek. A liberal-minded and pragmatic man, he sought practical solutions to the town’s manifold everday problems and harmony among its variegated groups. But his overriding aim, which he made little effort to conceal, was to secure Israel’s permanent hold on Jerusalem as its unified capital. The expropriation of Arab land in east Jerusalem proceeded at a rapid pace and new Jewish neighbourhoods were built there in flagrant violation of international law. Driving all this hectic activity was a long-term geopolitical aim: the creation of a ring of Jewish population around the northern, north-eastern, and southern periphery of the city. As Kollek himself candidly admitted in a newspaper interview in 1968: ‘The object is to ensure that all of Jerusalem remains for ever a  part of Israel. If this city is to be our capital, then we have to make it an integral part of our country and we need Jewish inhabitants to do that.’

The position of the great powers remained virtually unchanged: they refused to recognise the legality or legitimacy of the Israeli attempt to incorporate east Jerusalem. The United Nations passed a series of resolutions, condemning the Israeli measures in the Arab part of the city. External pressures, however, failed to dent Israel’s confidence in its moral right to impose its rule over a large and recalcitrant Arab population. In nationalist circles these pressures  provoked deep resentment and defiance. In July 1980, the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, which stated that ‘Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel’. Its initiator, the ultra-nationalist Knesset member Geula Cohen, made it clear that her purpose was to forclose any negotiations over the status of the city. Unlike earlier legislation regarding Jerusalem, the bill was widely criticised within Israel as unnecesary and even harmful. The bill did indeed place Israel on the defensive in the international arena. It drew criticism from all the major powers. On 20 August the UN Security Council passed a resolution reprimanding Israel by fourteen votes to zero, with the USA abstaining. The New York Times called the law ‘capital folly’.

In the years after this capital folly was committed, Israeli leaders of all political hues continued to repeat, like a Greek chorus, the mantra that unified Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Israel. Their other constant refrain was that Jerusalem is non-negotiable. To get round this self-imposed constraint, the Israeli architects of the Oslo accord put the Jerusalem question to one side. The Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn, on 13 September 1993, said little on this particular subject. The Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority was to have no jurisdiction over Jerusalem. The status quo was to continue until the ‘final status’ negotiations that were due to begin in the third year of the interim period. In the meantime, both sides were free to cling to their symbols of sovereignty and their dreams. An optimistic Yasser Arafat said that the agreement was merely the first step towards ‘the total withdrawal from our land, our holy sites, and our holy Jerusalem’. But an Israeli spokesman insisted, ‘Jerusalem is not part of the deal and there has been no weakening on that.’

The framework for a final status agreement between Israel and the PLO was concluded  on 31 October 1995 by Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, and Mahmoud Abbas (better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen), a close adviser to Arafat. This bold document made a first stab at resolving all the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians. It envisaged an independent but demilitarised Palestinian state over Gaza and 94 per cent of the West Bank with al-Quds as its capital. Four days later Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and his successor, Shimon Peres, lacked the courage to adopt the plan, not least because it would have exposed him to the charge of dividing Jerusalem. Peres was narrowly defeated by Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud, in the elections of May 1996. On coming to power, Netanyahu abruptly reversed the cautious peace policy of his Labour predecessors, especially with regard to Jerusalem. The secret of Oslo was to keep Jerusalem to the end of the process. Netanyahu placed it at the centre of his policy, thereby blocking progress on all the other issues.

The Jerusalem question did not make another major appearance on the international diplomatic agenda until the Camp David summit which Bill Clinton convened at the request of Ehud Barak in July 2000. At Camp David, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat negotiated more back to back than face to face. Both leaders faced serious internal problems. Barak’s coalition was crumbling and he arrived at the conference at the head of a government that seemed on the verge of collapse. Arafat was under pressure not to yield on the Palestinian demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the whole of Arab east Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was the core issue at the summit  and the main stumbling block to an overall agreement. To break the deadlock, the American mediators put forward ‘bridging proposals’ that were broadly based on the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan. But there was no meeting of minds between the two delegations and no real negotiations took place. Arafat failed to put forward  any constructive counter-proposals. He stood his ground and and refused to give way on Jerusalem and the holy places. Clinton’s proposal for postponing the issue for later determination was also rejected by Arafat.  A frustrated Clinton likened the experiece to ‘going to the dentist without having your gums deadened’.

After the breakdown of the talks, the outbreak of another round of violence was only a question of time. On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition, sparked it off by his ostantatious visit to Temple Mount. Sharon, surrounded by a phalanx of security men, claimed he was going to deliver what he called ‘a message of peace’. To the other side, the message that came across loud and clear was ‘Israel rules OK!’  The visit sparked off riots on the Haram al-Sharif, that spread to the Arab parts of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and, for the first time, some of the Arab-inhabited parts of Israel. Riots quickly snow-balled into a full-scale uprising. Within ten days the death toll of what became known as the al-Aqsa intifada approached 100. The Oslo accords were completely submerged by the volcanic outpourings of collective hatred that accompanied the return to violence.

It was against this grim background that Bill Clinton made one last attempt, just before the end of his term, to bridge the gap between the two warring sides. At a meeting at the White House with Israeli and Palestinian representatives on 23 December, Clinton presented his ideas for a final settlement. These ideas, or ‘parameters’ as he called them, had moved a long distance from the American bridging proposals at Camp David towards meeting Palestinian aspirations. Israel was to withdraw altogether from Gaza and fom 94-96 per cent of the West Bank. There was to be an independent Palestinian state but with some limitations on its level of armaments. The guiding principle for solving the Palestinian refugee problem was that the new state would be ‘the focal point for the Palestinians who choose to return to the area.’ With  regard to Jerusalem ‘the general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli. This would apply to the Old City as well.’

Negotiations on the basis of the Clinton parameters took place at the Egyptian Red Sea resort in Taba in the last week of January 2001. Both sides broadly accepted the proposals but with a long list of reservations. On Jerusalem the Israeli reservations were more substantial than those of the Palestinians. Barak stated publicly that he would not transfer sovereignty over Temple Mount. At this critical juncture, as so often in the past, peace was held hostage to internal Israeli politics. The elections for prime minister scheduled for 6 February led Barak to adopt a tough line over the Old City and Temple Mount. Despite these local difficulties, the negotiators came closer to a final status agreement than ever before but they were  overtaken by events. Ariel Sharon won the election by a landslide. His government immediately declared that the undestandings reached at Taba were not binding because they had not been embodied in a signed document. To make things worse, the incoming administration of George W. Bush chose to disengage from the peace process and did not consider itself bound by the proposals of its predecessor.  Consequently, most of the achievements of the  Taba talks disappeared into the desert sand.

In the Preface to this admirable book, Bernard Wasserstein observes that the ‘eternally unified capital’of the state of Israel is the most deeply divided capital city in the world: ‘Its Arab and Jewish residents inhabit different districts, speak different languages, attend different schools, read different newspapers, watch different television programmes, observe different holy days, follow different football teams -- live, in almost every significant respect, different lives.’ What the book  eloquently demonstrates is that the struggle for Jerusalem cannot be resolved without some recognition of the reality and legitimacy of its plural character. It is sad to have to add that such recognition is a more remote prospect today than at any other time since the Oslo accord was signed.