O Jerusalem! Sacred to Three Faiths, Capital of One? 


Jeremy Kinsman

Among the vast battalions of experts who’ve grown old in the past four decades mastering the intricacies of the Middle East peace process, there’s been a theory—an outlier in the canon—that maybe the only thing that would dislodge the impasse was a status quo-exploding meteorite. Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December probably wasn’t that positive disruptor. Veteran diplomat Jeremy Kinsman takes us through the past and present of the world’s most disputed square kilometre. 

Jerusalem. Where Man meets God, the Holy City for all three monotheistic faiths, where God spoke to Solomon of the promised land, where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected, and where Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the second pillar of Islam.

And where, as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in Jersusalem: The Biography, believers in each of those three narratives also believe “this city belongs to them alone.”

When Donald Trump announced on Dec. 6, 2017 that the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, it seemed he was deciding that the Holy City now belonged to Israelis alone. Trump almost certainly did not understand the international implications of the decision. The epically disputed status of Jerusalem is arguably the oldest and most fraught international irritant that humans know.

King David created there the capital of the Jewish tribes of Judea in about 1000 BC. Solomon built their First Temple, initiating Jerusalem’s Jewish millennium. Babylonians and Persians briefly occupied the city, as did Egyptians, whose curtailing of Jewish religious practices in 167 BC ignited the Maccabee Revolt, ushering in a last regal Jewish century before the Romans arrived. Rome’s King Herod respected Jewish prerogatives, but oppressive successors made the crucifixion of rebels routine (including that of the nonviolent Jewish reformer, Jesus of anti-Rome Galilee). A Jewish uprising in 70 AD led Roman satrap Titus to expel Jews from Jerusalem.

Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD ushered in centuries of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem as well as the vindictive and often brutal crusades. Muhammed ignited the Arab Awakening in the 7th century. A transformative reformer, he revered Jesus as well as Moses and shared their belief in the biblical prophecy of a coming Apocalypse in Jerusalem.

The Arab caliphate took Jerusalem from the receding eastern Roman Empire in 638 AD. The city’s sacred prayer sites were initially shared, but Arab rulers built the golden Dome of the Rock, the third-most holy site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, which, as Sebag Montefiore wrote, would become a “shrine of resurgent Islam and the totem of Palestinian nationalism.” Muslim rule of Jerusalem would last for about 1,300 years, first under Arabs, then under Ottoman Turks who took the city in 1517 and held it until British general Sir Edmund Allenby, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, took the city in 1917.

Meanwhile, Jews were dispersed. Many who had lived peacefully for centuries in Ottoman Spain until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella repossessed Spain for Christianity in 1492 and expelled them re-migrated across the remaining Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe. But a Jewish remnant survived as a small minority in Palestine.

By the late 19th century in Europe, militaristic nationalism accompanied by anti-semitism typified by the Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894 encouraged the notion of a return to the original Jewish homeland. The father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.

In 1917, the vanguard Zionists were elated by Britain’s Balfour Declaration, a 67-word letter from Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” without prejudice to the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” As was evident when the centenary of the declaration was marked in November, 2017, Jews and Arabs remain bitterly divided in their views on the Balfour Declaration as either Israel’s foundational document or an imperial death sentence for Arab Palestine.

By the 1920s, more than 30,000 Jews fleeing Russian pogroms had joined agricultural villages in Palestine funded by wealthy European Jewish benefactors such as Rothschild, though the overwhelming majority had chosen to sail to America. In the 1930s, more than 60,000 Jews emigrated from Nazi Germany to Palestine, which was then under the British Mandate officially begun in 1920. Their growing numbers prompted an Arab uprising known as the Great Revolt from 1936-39. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust streamed to Palestine after 1945, multiplying the Jewish population dramatically and valorizing the cause of a national state for Jews in Palestine.

Israel’s founders, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, hoped Arabs would agree to share the land. But as Arab hostility and Jewish resolve deepened, partition increasingly became the most viable solution. Militant Arabs and Jews prepared for inevitable conflict as 100,000 British soldiers tried to keep the lid on the violence.

American leadership, with Soviet support, persuaded the new United Nations in 1947 to divide Palestine, giving 57 per cent to the Jewish people, while assigning international status to Jerusalem to ensure access to the Old City’s holy sites for all three religions. Traumatized by what they viewed as loss of their land, Arabs launched a war against Jewish forces which, though impromptu, benefited from ingenious improvisation in weapons manufacture and clandestine acquisition from abroad. The stalemated 1948 war was a victory for Israel’s survival, though Arabs refused to accept it.

Bloody fighting and what Palestinians and some Israeli historians describe as forced expulsions drove 600,000 Arabs from their villages now located in the Jewish state. They languished as refugees in UN-administered camps for generations, making an asserted “right of return” to their former homes a core issue for the Palestinians in the Middle East peace process. Though the city was divided by barbed wire, Israel declared Jerusalem—in effect West Jerusalem—its capital on December 11, 1949.

In 1967, over-confident Arab forces under Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and were swiftly crushed by a now-superior and modern Israeli military. In the Six Day War, Israel captured the Sinai Desert, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and East Jerusalem—including the Old City—setting the stage for the protracted international drama over its dominion. In Resolution 242, the UN Security Council called on Israeli forces to withdraw from “territories occupied” in the conflict and directed all to renounce hostility, respect others’ sovereignty, and settle the refugee problem.

The 1967 war elated Israel, humiliated Arabs, and jump-started militant Palestinian nationalism under the new Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel’s stern security and permissive settlement policies in the occupied territories and Arab/Islamic violent opposition began decades of feeding off each other. Militant Arabs launched terrorist hijackings and attacks, notably murdering 12 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Israel responded by pre-emptive and punitive targeted reprisals.

Early success for the Arab coalition in the last outright Arab-Israeli war in 1973 (to recover Sinai and the Golan Heights) revived Arab pride and shocked Israelis. It prompted the direct Israel-Egypt contacts that led to the Camp David Accords that formalized bilateral peace and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. However, for Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted that it “will remain the eternal capital of Israel and that is that.”

After 50 years of a peace process characterized by chronic gamesmanship interrupted by occasional breakthroughs but without a final resolution, most of UNSC Resolution 242 remains unfulfilled as Israelis and Palestinians struggle to accept co-existent, adjacent realities. Jerusalem has been both the highly symbolic and territorial heart of the problem.

Over that time, as the prosperity, population, international stature and self-reliant military capability of Israel swiftly grew, Israel’s reality became undeniable to all but fanatics. France-mentored nuclear development led to a non-acknowledged nuclear weapons capability that has buttressed the credibility of Israeli deterrence immeasurably.

In practice, the international community largely accepted that Jerusalem was effectively Israel’s capital, routinely meeting the Israeli PM and officials in their parliamentary and other offices in West Jerusalem. Israeli policy increasingly tried to change “facts on the ground” by building Jewish housing in Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem and supporting Israeli settlements in the occupied territories that now contain over 700,000 inhabitants. Many are ultra-orthodox who hold that the West Bank comprises the ancient Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria that belong immutably to Israel by biblical fiat. For most busy nation-building Israelis, the Palestinian reality has been felt principally when it threatened their daily security. For their part, Palestinians face the Israeli reality daily. The occupied status of the West Bank under Israeli military rule (acknowledged by the Supreme Court of Israel) continues to enclose them every day, circumscribing their civil rights and creating a permanent humanitarian disaster within the Middle East’s most advanced industrialized democracy.

When Arab states joined in a delicate and essential coalition with western countries to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, it involved an understanding that an effort to resolve Palestinian issues would follow and the subsequent Oslo Accords created Palestinian interim self-government. The going was made tougher when a Jewish extremist settler assassinated Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But in 2000, Israelis and Palestinians finally neared agreement on borders, land swaps, and settlements. But PLO leader Yasser Arafat blinked over the handling of Jerusalem, and the opportunity for a comprehensive peace settlement slipped away. It was buried by the second and more lethal Palestinian intifada uprising against Israeli occupation, when suicide bombers struck Israeli cities (73 in 2000-2003) causing intolerable havoc and grief. Israel constructed a 708-kilometer long border security wall that cut the bombings and eased Israeli security fears. But it hardened the separation of peoples while dulling the urgency of accommodation.

Israel unilaterally ended its costly occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. But a Hamas government Gazans elected the following year facilitated rocket attacks on Israel, prompting a cycle of reprisals and a high-casualty war in 2008. Notwithstanding efforts by the Obama administration and both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, the peace process has since been largely moribund, a state of affairs most observers attribute mostly to the intractability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Former Israeli PM Ehud Barak maintains Israelis want a two-state “divorce” from Palestinians in order to move on. Pew Research polls confirm majority Israeli support for the two-state route, partly in expectation that higher Palestinian demography in a single state would doom Israel as a Jewish democracy. Stav Shaffir, the youngest member of the Knesset, asserts “our democracy depends on our security, a Jewish majority, so we need a separation from the Palestinians and a two-state solution.”

Netanyahu gives lip service to an eventual two-state solution but does nothing to advance it. He told CNN recently that while Palestinians could have all the “powers to govern themselves,” Israel will maintain military and security control of the West Bank to suppress their “power to threaten us.” Barak disputes the necessity of what would amount to perpetual occupation, which, as German Foreign Minister Sigmund Gabriel recently warned, carries grave costs to Israel. Israel’s current right-wing governing coalition under Netanyahu includes ministers who conflate religious faith and political purpose to undermine the notion of two states, and even to press for annexation of parts of the West Bank. Public Safety Minister Gilad Erdan declared “It doesn’t matter what the nations of the world say. The time has come to express our biblical right to the land.”

Netanyahu has resisted the fatal annexation initiative but his vulnerability to substantial police accusations of bribery and fraud threaten his political survival. As his popularity plummets, he will need the support of coalition partners, however extreme.

Meanwhile, the region is being destabilized by the effects of the wars that have devastated Syria and Iraq as Iran and Israeli ally Saudi Arabia move to improve their respective positions in the area, further distracting Israelis and Arab states from the urgency of renewing the peace process. Palestinians are disconsolate. President Mahmoud Abbas (who, like Netanyahu, has been in office too long) called Trump’s rash decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem a “slap in the face” and severed contact with the U.S. In return, the mercurial Trump cut ever-more vital humanitarian assistance. What now? While it never seems a good time for concessions, it is hard to see political actors with survival worries in Israel, Palestine and the US delivering essential compromises including over the Palestinian expectation East Jerusalem could be their capital.

So, why did Trump rock the boat now? His target audience was the fundamentalist and messianic evangelical Christian core of his political base whose loyalty he needs, given his own embattled status. Also, the Republican Party, since the attacks of 9/11, has become phobic about Muslims, another favourite theme of the U.S. president. Brookings polls show Americans generally are 2-1 against moving the embassy, but GOP voters are slightly in favour. Notably, Jewish Americans (mostly Democrats, many of whom opposed Netanyahu’s political stunts in the U.S. Congress against Obama over Iran) oppose it 3-1. Globally, Trump’s move is seen as a negative. The United Nations overwhelmingly voted to condemn it for one-sidedness. (NAFTA-focused Canada ducked with an abstention.)

Hannah Pollin-Galay of Tel Aviv University writes that the decision “Destroyed hope on both sides. It gives right-wing nationalists the…sense they are right…rewarded for not listening to Palestinians, for not sharing holy ground. That is disastrous, the most dangerous thing imaginable.” But Trump’s rookie envoy to Israel, his ex-lawyer Jason Greenblatt, argues it only reflects an “obvious reality” and does not prejudice final boundary issues or Jerusalem’s status quo on holy site access, though most American negotiators from decades past see “taking Jerusalem off the table” to be breaking apart the core negotiating package and getting nothing in return.

Perhaps Trump realizes his inflated idea he could broker a peace process with personal envoys whom even Netanyahu acknowledges approach the issues as just a sort of real estate deal is now imperiled.

In mid-February he tried to re-balance his position, pointedly stating that he is “not sure that Israel is looking to make peace,” adding that Israeli settlements “are something that very much complicate and always have complicated making peace.” Ultimately, a negotiated outcome has to address the current tragedy that Israeli poet Haim Gouri, in I Am a Civil War, describes as one in which “those in the right fire on those in the right.” Israel faces a terrible dilemma as both the “only nation in the West that is occupying another people,” and “the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened” (Ari Shavits). But Palestinians are also existentially stressed.

The core issue of Jerusalem especially incites deeply emotional nationalist and religious passions. Personal faith commands respect. But if there is one overriding necessity for reaching the compromises that have to be the basis of a viable peace process for the sake of the people, it would be to keep God out of it.

The author dedicates this article to the memory of Michael Bell, twice Canada’s Ambassador to Israel and also Ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, who devoted the end of his life to reconciliation in Jerusalem.

Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the U.K. and EU. He is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. kinsmanj@shaw.ca