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Jerusalem Has Always Been a Contested City


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15, 2017, where he held a press conference with President Trump, whose policies on the Israel-Palestine conflict have been erratic and changed nothing so far. CREATIVE COMMONS

The long-simmering dispute over the fate of Jerusalem stands at the center of the Middle East conflict. Israelis and Palestinians, divided on many points, become most emotional when discussing the future of the walled, ancient crossroads city that is holy to three world religions.

So international diplomats took notice when foreign policy neophyte Donald Trump dipped a toe into the cauldron that is Middle East politics in December 2015 as he launched his unlikely campaign for the White House.

Trump has since let loose an erratic array of policy pronouncements to little effect. The Middle East peace process looks set to remain on life support for the foreseeable future, leaving the international community without a real strategy for ending the long conflict.

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As the United States takes the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April, the topic will undoubtedly land at the top of the priority list, aiming to favor Israel. Other steps include Israel holding a summit on March 29 at the UN focused on combating the anti-Israel boycott movement; Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, is to address the meeting.

As in other policy realms, Trump has zigged and zagged his way through an obstacle course, initially searching for Jewish support for his campaign and, later, after winning the presidency of the United States, discovering he would have to work with a broader constituency domestically and abroad. Through it all, however, his approach has mostly targeted conservative Jews and Evangelical Christians who strongly support Israel. His central argument has been that America’s close relationship with the Jewish state required extensive repair after going through a rough patch under President Obama. The Palestinian cause seems to play no role in Trump’s politics.

Trump’s interest in Israel appeared to peak in February, when, during a Washington visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he declared that he was reversing longtime US policy and would no longer push for creation of a separate Palestinian state to help resolve the conflict, one of the world’s bitterest diplomatic standoffs. Instead, he said he would leave it to Israelis and Palestinians to fill in the details of a peace deal through bilateral negotiations, whether it would result in one state — a greater Israel — or two, Israel and Palestine.

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Trump aides within days softened that abrupt policy shift, stating that the so-called two-state solution remains on the table. That solution calls for creation of a Palestinian state next door to the Jewish state, with East Jerusalem removed from Israeli control to serve as Palestine’s capital.

Nevertheless, Trump’s declaration may have crippled a concerted movement toward any peace agreement, let alone the two-state solution. Israel’s conservative government quietly blocks any movement toward Palestinian statehood despite its occasional lip service. Moreover, it has worked hard to head off resumption of peace talks since negotiations broke down in April 2014.

Before Trump, the US had been the de facto international leader of the peace process, steadily pushing both sides to take steps toward peace, whoever was in the White House. (France has made attempts, too, to broker peace.) But Trump, who calls himself a close personal friend of Netanyahu, did nothing during the prime minister’s visit to Washington to pressure Israel, although he talked vaguely of using his business skills to help reach a deal. Consequently, Israel can be expected to sit tight, thus ensuring the status quo.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, has said the Palestinian side remains committed to statehood. International support, as expressed through the United Nations and other global organs, is also extremely strong. Even many Israelis acknowledge that the main alternative to a Palestinian state — permanently folding the Palestinians and their occupied territory into a greater Israel — would most likely not work. The area’s Arab population is growing rapidly and will soon outnumber its Jewish inhabitants, ending Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

Jerusalem: fiercely contested

Archaeologists have traced Jerusalem’s origins back more than 7,000 years, or around 5000 BCE (before the Christian Era, equivalent to the more common BC designation). But Israelis and Palestinians — and other interested parties — each lay claim to their own version of the city’s past. For a detailed timeline of Jerusalem’s past, please see “Seeking a Path for Jerusalem: A Chronology,” published separately on

“Jerusalem may have the most fiercely contested history of any city in the world,” Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, has written.

Many Israelis assert that the ancient city has been the undivided capital of the Jewish people throughout a significant part of its life and is fated to remain so perpetually.

“[T]here are not two Jerusalems; there is only one Jerusalem,” then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in a 1995 address to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. “From our perspective, Jerusalem is not a subject for compromise. Jerusalem was ours, will be ours, is ours and will remain as such forever.”

Rabin’s statement is based on the account of Jerusalem laid out in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis: Abraham became the founding father of the Jewish people when he obeyed an instruction from God to build an altar on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah and prepare to sacrifice his son there as a sign of his faith. Biblical scholars date this event to 1676 BCE.

The Old Testament recounts that when God recognized that Abraham would honor his demand, he stopped the sacrifice and rewarded Abraham by establishing an “everlasting covenant” with him and his descendants “to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

In a profound moment in the UN Security Council, on Dec. 23, 2016, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, abstained in a vote to enable a resolution condemning Israeli settlements to pass. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

For this reason, Mount Moriah is considered the holiest site in Judaism, known also as the Temple Mount, the presumed site of the Jews’ first and second great temples. Jerusalem’s patchwork of holy sites is so dense that archaeologists have been prevented from conducting the necessary digs to test this supposition.

The Quran, however, places Abraham’s planned sacrifice on Mount Marwah in Mecca (now Saudi Arabia), the holiest city in Islam, because it is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, Islam’s central figure.

The Old Testament story of Abraham forms the core of the belief that Jerusalem has long been, and will eternally remain, the undivided capital of the Jewish homeland. After the Holocaust, it was interpreted to mean that the Jewish people had a divine entitlement to return there. The city is currently home to 870,000 people, 37 percent of them Arabs and 63 percent Jews and others, according to the latest figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

But the Jews only sporadically dominated the area during the thousands of years after Abraham. Nearly 700 years passed before the Old Testament’s King David, living nearby with his family, conquered Jerusalem and declared it the capital of a Jewish kingdom he called Judea, biblical scholars calculate. David’s son, the biblical King Solomon, completed the Jews’ first great temple there in 957 BCE, scholars say.

But Judea split in two in 926 BCE and fell into Assyrian hands two centuries later. Between 733 BCE and 1948 CE (Christian Era, equivalent to the more common AD designation), the area came under a succession of neighboring powers, including the Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, the Seleucid Empire, the Romans, a Muslim caliph, Christian Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire, Transjordan and — acting under a UN mandate — Britain. It was not until the 1880s CE that a large number of Jews, finding themselves unwelcome in their home countries, began returning to what was then called Palestine in hopes of establishing a Jewish homeland.

But scholars know that Jerusalem also played a crucial role in the birth and subsequent spread of Christianity and Islam, religions that make their own claims on Jerusalem’s history.

Jesus Christ was born and grew up near the city nearly 1,700 years after Abraham built his sacrificial altar. Jesus preached there during the last week of his life before being crucified and resurrected, according to the New Testament. Numerous sites holy to the Christian faith are still found in Jerusalem and its environs, and the city was twice conquered by Christian Crusaders intent on seizing it from its Muslim rulers in 1099 and 1229 CE.

Which brings us to Islam. It traces its origins not to Jerusalem but to Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, where the prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE. But Muslim ties to Jerusalem are still deep. Immediately adjacent to the Jews’ Temple Mount are the Al Aqsa mosque and the Noble Sanctuary, the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The Quran says Muhammad made his way there from Mecca to ascend to heaven and receive instructions from God on how to pray, so he could bring this knowledge to the faithful back on earth.

Muhammad initially instructed the faithful to bow toward Jerusalem to pray, as did the Jews. But he switched the direction to Mecca in 624 CE after Medina’s Jewish tribes refused to recognize him as a genuine prophet, writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of “Jerusalem: The Biography.”

Jerusalem: A divided city

While the international community, through the UN, largely lines up behind the plan to divide Jerusalem so it can serve as the shared capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, Jerusalem has existed briefly as a divided city. This occurred after Israel’s unilateral declaration of statehood, issued at the expiration of the UN mandate authorizing British administration of what was then Palestine.

Anticipating the expiration of the mandate, the UN General Assembly in a 1947 resolution called for Palestine’s partition into separate Arab and Jewish states. But to ensure that Arabs, Christians and Jews could all gain access to their holy sites in Jerusalem, the resolution called for the city to be maintained as a corpus separatum, a separate area under UN administration.

When Israel proclaimed statehood in May 1948, however, the Palestinian Arabs did not follow suit, and instead mounted an invasion backed by their Arab neighbors. In this first Arab-Israeli War, Israel beat back the Arab forces. Following an armistice agreement signed in 1949, Israel and Jordan informally divided the administration of Jerusalem between them. Israel declared West Jerusalem its capital while Jordan took de facto control of East Jerusalem.

That arrangement endured until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Arab forces again attacked. But Israeli forces again prevailed, seizing East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and asserting Jewish control over these areas for the first time since 70 CE.

Jerusalem: the Al Aqsa mosque (foreground, left) and the Golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine. The whole area is called Temple Mount, or Mount Moriah. ADAM ASAR

The UN Security Council, which counts Washington as one of its five permanent veto-wielding members, approved a resolution in November 1967 demanding that Israel withdraw from the land it had seized in exchange for a pledge from all Middle East nations to live in peace with one another within secure and internationally recognized boundaries.

But the warring parties failed to reach an agreement, and peace has yet to emerge, although the resolution continues to guide UN efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict. East Jerusalem and the West Bank remain Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. It is in these areas that Israel has been steadily gobbling up Palestinian land for nearly 50 years. It has used the occupied territory to build and expand Jewish settlements, despite repeated international declarations that such settlements violate the Geneva Conventions.

In 1980, Israel attempted to end uncertainty over the fate of the settlements with the adoption by Israel’s parliament of a Basic Law — one fundamental to the protection of human rights — stating “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” No other government has recognized this law, however, and a series of Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have subsequently declared it null and void.

Israel has nevertheless continued to convert additional occupied land to Jewish use, to the point that many international diplomats argue there is no longer enough land for a Palestinian state or a capital in East Jerusalem.

In recent years, attempts to revive the peace process have stalled when the Palestinian side refused to negotiate without a freeze on settlements while the Israelis agreed to talk only if the Palestinians agreed to waive preconditions, such as a settlement freeze.

Although a peace process has existed for years, negotiations have always been sporadic. Many differences remain unresolved and disputes regularly degenerate into Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets, countered by Israeli military reprisals and harsh police practices.

Israeli authorities argue they have no reliable negotiating partner for peace in the splintered Palestinian political landscape, which includes groups that embrace violence and refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Palestinians say the Israelis invite a violent response in their steady undermining of Palestinian rights and steady expansion of settlements.

While the UN considers these settlements illegal under international law, Israel insists they are legal even as officials acknowledge that their strategy has succeeded in creating “new facts on the ground” that make Palestinian statehood more difficult. The US, the lead nation in the peace process and Israel’s closest ally, regularly condemns the settlement expansion but mostly shies away from branding them as illegal and has generally been unwilling or unable to bring the practice to a halt.

Yet on Dec. 23, 2016, the Security Council passed a resolution, with the US abstaining in a bold departure by the Obama White House, saying the settlements constitute “a flagrant violation under international law.”

Middle East diplomacy had entered a new phase in January 2016 when Trump, seeking the Republican presidential nomination, announced he would shift the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move intended to please conservative Jewish and Evangelical voters and Israel’s conservative government. The move would amount to tacit US recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump favored the step, he said, “100 percent.”

Just a month earlier, Trump demurred when asked whether he would pledge to relocate the US embassy, as numerous other presidential candidates have promised over the years.

But on Jan. 22, 2017, just two days after being sworn in as president, Trump switched positions again, backing away from the commitment he made a year earlier. The matter required further study, the White House announced. No other country now has an embassy in Jerusalem, although a few have opened consulates there.

And after originally embracing the Israeli settlements, the administration announced on Feb. 2 that settlements “may not be helpful” in reaching a peace deal. On Feb. 10, Trump further hardened his position, telling an Israeli newspaper in an interview that “every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see.”

In his latest move, Trump stood next to a smiling Netanyahu on Feb. 15 and announced he was ending decades of US support for the two-state solution. Curiously, in doing so, he failed to consult with, or even inform, Rex Tillerson, his new secretary of state. A day later, Nikki Haley, Trump’s new ambassador to the UN, contradicted the new president, telling reporters outside the Security Council chamber, “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”

Where is Jerusalem headed under Trump? By his apparent design, the entire peace process resides in a cul de sac, where it could stay forever.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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