City of Peace in Pieces?

At the end of the year 2000, bloody clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian snipers and demonstrators have thrown the whole Middle East peace process into question. Many observers believe that the process is dead, while from time to time leaders on both sides express their desire for a renewal of talks. For almost a decade both sides have been searching for a resolution to the more than 50-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

The peace talks actually had their genesis in a 1991 Madrid conference brokered by Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. It was there that the Israelis and the Palestinians sat down face-to-face for the first time.

In the middle of 1992 the new government of Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin announced that it would pursue peace with the Palestinians as partners in a new society, no longer enemies. For their part, the Palestinians renounced violence as a means to their independence and recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist.

The next year secret talks were held in Norway, resulting in a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords. They included the return of some of the territory taken by Israel in the 1967 war. But there was still a lot of suspicion on both sides, and four issues were deliberately left off the table. They were judged too delicate to discuss until other agreements could be reached.

Those four issues are

  1. the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland;
  2. the final boundaries between the new state of Palestine and Israel;
  3. the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank;
  4. the final status of Jerusalem.

Conflict Over the City of Peace

In 2000, renewed negotiations hit what seemed like a major impasse: neither side could come to agreement about Jerusalem—both its future shape and, more importantly, its sovereignty. Here we examine some of the reasons why the issue of Jerusalem has reached critical mass.

According to Palestinian scholar Ghada Karmi, “nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem.”

Statements on the perplexing and complex problem of Jerusalem have echoed from both sides for decades and highlight the intractable gulf between them. According to Palestinian scholar Ghada Karmi, “nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem.” Hanan Ashrawi, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a frequent spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, has commented that “Jerusalem is the most volatile issue and the most crucial cornerstone of any peace in the region.”

For the Palestinians, East Jerusalem must be the capital of their new state, under singular Palestinian sovereignty. For the Israeli political leadership, sovereignty of the unified city appears nonnegotiable, no matter the administration—Labor or Likud.

In 1978 at the Camp David talks between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (Likud) and Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, Begin reacted strongly to one of Sadat’s proposals. According to the BBC’s publication The Fifty Years’ War, “Begin turned to Article 6, in which Sadat was proposing that Israel withdraw from East Jerusalem, and which it declared was its eternal capital. ‘‘So you propose to divide Jerusalem?’ said Begin, adding, ‘Never.’”

After taking office as prime minister in 1992, Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin said: “Jerusalem, whole and united, has been and will remain the capital of the Israeli people under Israeli sovereignty. . . . Every Jew, both religious and secular, vows: If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! This vow unites all of us and certainly applies to me, being a native of Jerusalem.” For Rabin, Jerusalem had another deeply personal aspect: he had been one of three generals who entered the Old City in the 1967 war.

Despite monumental accommodations in even negotiating with the PLO, Rabin announced no change in his position as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1994. He said: “I am here as the emissary of Jerusalem, at whose gates I fought in the days of the siege; Jerusalem, which has always been, and is today, the eternal capital of the state of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people, who pray toward Jerusalem three times a day.”

Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, his successor, Shimon Peres, said publicly that Jerusalem would remain Israel’s united capital in perpetuity.

We have our principles. First, a united Jerusalem under our sovereignty, the capital city of Israel forever—period.”

Ehud Barak

On September 16, 1998, Ehud Barak, then Labor candidate for prime minister of Israel, stated his position on the city. He said: “We have our principles. First, a united Jerusalem under our sovereignty, the capital city of Israel forever—period.” His position on sovereignty has not changed in all of the talks since then.

Uncompromising Stand

Why have Israeli administrations resisted compromise on Jerusalem’s sovereignty, when at the same time they have been willing to give away land for peace, including the Sinai and parts of the West Bank? Is it just a matter of placating an electorate sold on a romantic notion about a biblical heritage? What is the root cause of Israel’s refusal to negotiate the sovereignty of Jerusalem with the Palestinians?

It goes back a long way.

In the traditional Passover ceremony, symbolizing release from oppression, the dispersed Jewish community has annually repeated to itself for over 1,900 years, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For 2,500 years, since the captivity in Babylon, Jewish sentiment has been stirred by the exiles’ oath not to forget Jerusalem. Redemptive return to Zion has haunted the Jewish imagination. This was and is a community with a particular place perpetually in view. Sooner or later, Palestine—the land of ancient Israel—would become the focus of intense efforts to return. And along with it, Zion—the city of Jerusalem.

Circumstance dictated that the time came in the 20th century under the auspices of Zionist ideology. In successive waves, Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine imbued with the vision of claiming back the land of their forefathers. After the State of Israel came into being in 1948, only West Jerusalem was in Israeli hands. Perhaps ambiguously, the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said: “We declare that Israel will not give up Jerusalem voluntarily, just as it did not give up for millennia its religion, its national uniqueness and its hope to return to Jerusalem and Zion—despite persecutions that could not be compared to anything else in history. . . . And Jewish Jerusalem will never accept foreign rule—after its sons and daughters have liberated for the third time their historic homeland and redeemed Jerusalem from annihilation and destruction.” Did Ben-Gurion mean only West Jerusalem, or did he foresee a time when “Jewish Jerusalem” would extend to the east and include even the Old City with its religious sites?

About 19 years later, victorious Israeli soldiers stood in front of the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, in the Old City. They were there as an unintended consequence of the Six-Day War. It signaled the beginning of a new attitude in Zionism. Suddenly the potential of reclaiming much of the land of Israel was before them. Ben-Gurion, now in retirement, spoke again. He wanted his fellow politicians to give back the captured West Bank, but he supported holding on to captured Jerusalem.

So there is clearly an ideological element in Israel’s possession of the city—the satisfaction of a yearning for something deep in the Jewish psyche. Certainly Jerusalem has a meaning that is hard to quantify.

Ideology and Identity

The Palestinians make very similar arguments. Jerusalem houses two important sites for the Islamic faith. On what is known as the Temple Mount, above the Western Wall, sit the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. While Israel has allowed the Muslim authorities to maintain their own control and jurisdiction over the sites, it guards access to the area.

For the Palestinians, it is one of the most holy sites—the third, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It was formerly under the care of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There the late King Hussein saw his grandfather, King Abdullah, assassinated before his eyes.

The history and ideological implications of the place are immense. The reason behind the impasse over Jerusalem surely lies in the nature of ideological thinking and belief. Ideology is a much used but little-clarified concept in the study of political science and international relations. Why is it such a powerful motivator?

It is readily accepted that Zionism is an ideology. Equally, the Islamic fundamentalist is powered by ideological belief.

The Palestinian cause, a people in search of their land, is also ideological in nature. Equally, the Islamic fundamentalist is powered by ideological belief.

But how is an ideology to be defined? A few years ago a Canadian political scientist, Willard Mullins, drew up a list of points to consider.

He said that an ideology must have a sense of its own history, not only in the past, but looking forward into the future. With the beliefs surrounding Jerusalem, the city certainly has that.

Another aspect of an ideology, he said, is that it has action attached to it. It is not just a philosophical idea. It’s easy for people to act on the basis of an ideology. For example, belief that the biblical land of Israel is the right of the modern-day Jews has inspired the building of settlements on the West Bank (parts of ancient Judea and Samaria).

Ideologies also have a logical coherence about them. When the beliefs are explained, they have internal logic.

Zionism is ideological and, as a result, it is not subject to sudden change. It is an integrated belief system. When an ideology becomes part of a person’s identity, that person will defend his or her beliefs and even find ways to preserve or extend them. If Israelis believe ideologically that a united Jerusalem is part of their identity, it is not surprising that talks about sharing or dividing the city make little progress.

Similarly, if the Palestinians believe ideologically that East Jerusalem, with its holy sites, is part of their identity, then they will protect and defend their right to it.

Divine Sovereignty?

Vision often refers to the Bible for insight into current events. It’s interesting that a recent U.S. proposal for resolution of the Jerusalem impasse was for both sides to agree that the most disputed areas of the city were under “divine sovereignty.” Perhaps needless to say, it was rejected. But can anything be found in the Bible that gives perspective about this city so often at the center of world news?

Can anything be found in the Bible that gives perspective about this city so often at the center of world news? 

The book of Judges provides us with an interesting place to start. It records that Jerusalem was not always Israel’s territory: “The children of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it; they struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire” (Judges 1:8).

It later became the capital of Judah and Israel under David and Solomon, of course. But the Gospel writer Luke tells us that hundreds of years after the time spoken of in Judges, Jesus of Nazareth was approaching the city and was moved to tears because it would again be destroyed. He said: “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41–44).

The destruction he spoke of came first with the Roman legions in A.D. 70, when they sacked the city and destroyed Herod the Great’s architectural masterpieces. Gone, too, was that most important building, the temple.

In a further reference to the temple (specifically, the location of the holy place) and the future of Jerusalem, Jesus spoke of another time when trouble would come. He said that before His own return to the earth, striking events would occur in the city.

Warning His disciples to be sure they understood elements of the writings of Daniel, He said: “‘When you see the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place’ (whoever reads, let him understand), ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes’” (Matthew 24:15–18).

This event in Jerusalem, he later told His listeners, would presage earthshaking events: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (verses 29–31).

In one of his psalms, David wrote that we should “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122). But will peace come to Jerusalem? The prophet Zechariah said that the day is coming when the Lord “will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, the Mountain of the Lord of hosts, the Holy Mountain” (Zechariah 8:3).

Speaking about that same future time, another of ancient Israel’s prophets, Jeremiah, said that “Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts” (Jeremiah 3:17).

The Bible states clearly that the days are coming when the city of Jerusalem will no longer suffer the violence and struggles that have characterized most of its long history. The period we now live in obviously precedes the time spoken of in these scriptures—a time when all peoples will acknowledge that the real sovereign of the city is God Himself. Human ideologies and political machinations will at last be set aside.

In the meantime, would it not be good to do as David said, and pray for the peace of Jerusalem?