Triumph and Tragedy in the Middle East

I felt in my bones the victory of Judaism, which for two thousand years of exile from the land of Israel had withstood persecutions, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, anti-Jewish decrees, restrictions, and the mass slaughter by the Nazis in our own generation, and had reached the fulfillment of its age-old yearning—the return to a free and independent Zion.”

Moshe Dayan, Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life

When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, he very likely did not envisage how long the conflict with the Arab world would continue. It had already been more than 50 years since the first Jewish immigrants fled Russian persecution and landed on the shores of Palestine.

Those years had been difficult, beginning with the struggle of Theodor Herzl and others to establish Zionism, and further punctuated by World War I, the Balfour Declaration, the collapse of Ottoman control of Palestine, the League of Nations mandate, fluctuating British policy on Jewish immigration, Arab and Palestinian animosity, and the catastrophic loss of life in the Holocaust. But surely the conflict would not continue for another half century.

Certainly the pragmatic future prime minister knew there would be troubled days ahead. He knew that he and his colleagues had compromised (if only temporarily) on the division of the territory and their hoped-for capital city in order to gain statehood. But he had every reason to believe that with the outpouring of sympathy for Holocaust survivors, the end of the British Mandate at midnight, and the confirmed broad support of the United Nations, a most important milestone on the road to international acceptance, peace and security for his people had been reached.

No one who lived that moment will ever lose its memory from his heart.”

Abba Eban (Recalling the November 1947 UN Vote), Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes

As if to signal justification for such hope, a mere 11 minutes after the declaration, President Harry Truman wired recognition of Israel by the United States; the Soviet Union followed three days later. Though no doubt for differing reasons, the young nation’s presence on the world stage was assured by the emerging superpowers.

But the 60 years since then have proven more challenging and more tragic for both Israelis and Palestinians than Ben-Gurion could ever have imagined in those first heady days of statehood. And always at the heart of the seemingly endless conflict has been the holy city, Jerusalem.

Crucial Resolution

The UN had passed Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, by a two-thirds majority (33 to 13 with 10 abstentions, including Britain). The resolution called for the partition of Palestine into two states—Jewish and Arab—with mutual economic interests, and for the internationalization of Jerusalem. There was also a provision that after 10 years a nonbinding referendum would take place among the residents regarding the city’s future. For his part, Ben-Gurion was happy to agree with this clause in the hope that after a decade the Jews would find it easier to possess Jerusalem, even though the projected demographics of the city would not be to their advantage.

One in every hundred men, women, old folk, children, babies in those crowds of Jews who were dancing, reveling, drinking, and weeping for joy . . . [in] the streets that night, would die in the war that the Arabs started within seven hours of the General Assembly’s decision at Lake Success.”

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness

The Jewish community in Palestine (the Yishuv) had joyfully accepted the UN decision; the Arab League had rejected it on behalf of the Palestinian people. Already in October 1947 Arab armies from surrounding countries had begun to move toward the borders of Palestine in anticipation of the vote. Within seven hours of the UN’s decision at Lake Success near New York, the Palestinians started the war that would continue intermittently for over a year. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Abba Eban, later wrote, “The period between December 1947 and April 1948 would be among the most perilous in the Jewish story.” Unfortunately, the newly created UN had no way of policing its decisions, and the British, having abstained from the UN vote, refused to get too involved as they prepared to relinquish their mandatory role.

It wasn’t that Ben-Gurion had failed to recognize the dangers. Even before April 1947, when the British formally asked the UN to take over the Mandate, he had concluded that an armed conflict with the Arabs would come. Holding the Yishuv defense portfolio from 1946, he had already begun an arms buildup. And there were diplomatic preparations as well. In November, just before the UN partition resolution passed, his colleague Golda (Meyerson) Meir met secretly with King Abdullah of Transjordan on behalf of the Jewish Agency. They agreed that, during a very likely conflict between the Jewish community and its Arab enemies, the Jews would take the areas designated for them in the UN plan, Transjordan would take Arab Palestine, and the two sides would make peace.

First Steps in the First Arab-Israeli War

When the Palestinian Arabs attacked the Jewish community following passage of the UN resolution in November 1947, the Jewish forces retaliated, and by mid-January 1948 Palestinians in sections of West Jerusalem were fleeing. In February Ben-Gurion gave orders to his defense forces (Haganah) to take possession of more Palestinian areas in West Jerusalem and to populate them with Jews. In March the Haganah agreed on offensive actions against the Palestinians (Plan D), including the expulsion of the population of entire villages. These were early days in the eventual disappearance of more than 400 Palestinian villages and the exile of more than 700,000 people. Though the reasons for the flight of Palestinians were multiple on both sides, the refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and the states of the Arabian Peninsula were in part the legacy of the Palestinians’ fear of Jewish attack, forced Jewish expulsion and the invading Arabs’ battle strategy.

On April 1 Ben-Gurion met with Haganah leaders and ordered an attack on the Arab village of Qastel, which overlooked the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road. Thus several weeks before the official British withdrawal, Plan D became operational with a view to opening a corridor from the coast to Jerusalem and annexing as much of the city as possible to the new state.

Two critical events led to the subsequent Zionist capture of significant parts of the city. First, on April 8, was the death of Palestinian military leader Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni at Qastel. Second, just one day later, came the infamous attack by Jewish underground groups (Irgun and the Stern Gang), in which 100–110 Palestinian civilians—men, women and children—died at Deir Yassin on the western edge of Jerusalem.

Shamefully, the Haganah command in Jerusalem had apparently agreed to the attack. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and three other Jewish thinkers wrote to Ben-Gurion that the massacre was “a black stain on the honour of the Jewish nation” and “a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder.” Ben-Gurion never replied, despite being sent several copies of the letter.

Jerusalem at the Center

By April 1948 conditions inside Jerusalem had deteriorated significantly, with the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (in East Jerusalem) under siege from the Palestinians. Ben-Gurion called an emergency meeting to find a way to alleviate the city’s food shortage. Three convoys got through and the problem was lessened. On May 11 Golda Meir secretly visited King Abdullah again to try to persuade him not to attack Israel in the coming days. But he said that the situation had changed and he could no longer keep his agreement of six months earlier. On May 14, of course, Ben-Gurion made the proclamation of the State of Israel, and almost immediately armies from five Arab countries attacked the newborn state. On May 17, according to Arab Legion commander Sir John Glubb, King Abdullah ordered the Arab Legion to defend the Old City in response to a Jewish offensive launched a few days earlier. The Jordanians arrived on the north side of the city on May 19 and prevented further advances by the Jewish forces.

Ben-Gurion met with his general staff early the following week and listed his priorities. First, Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Negev. Second, offense and not defense. Third, defeat one party at a time. Fourth, force the hand of the Arab Legion. By May 28, however, with the help of career British officers, the Arab Legion had brought the Jewish Quarter to the point of surrender.

Revisionist historians note that the conventional “War of Independence” account pits an Israeli David against an Arab Goliath. But the supposedly numerically outmatched Israelis in fact always had superiority, more so as the war continued. Subsequently released documents also show that the Arabs were each interested in fighting for reasons other than to help the Palestinians. The notion of a cohesive Arab front does not stand up. King Abdullah certainly had a different agenda. Long-standing Hashemite pragmatism dictated willingness to live alongside the Jewish people for the sake of peace and prosperity.

A general cease-fire came into effect on June 11, 1948. West Jerusalem, including Palestinian areas where the population had been driven out, were under Jewish control. East Jerusalem and the Old City (including the Jewish Quarter) were in Jordanian hands. Fighting soon resumed, however, and on September 26 Ben-Gurion put a new plan before the cabinet. He proposed launching an attack to take the whole city, but the vote went against him. He suppressed publication of the proposal, not wanting to embarrass those who had voted against it.

When the war ended in January 1949 Jerusalem remained divided. For some time afterward Ben-Gurion blamed the cabinet and excused himself over what he called the “loss” of East Jerusalem, which he said would be a cause for “lamentation for generations.” Further, notes Israeli historian Benny Morris, both Ben-Gurion and General Moshe Dayan, who became influential in the first few years of the State, believed that the 1948 war should have ended differently. They felt that Israel should have occupied “the whole country, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, and that a great opportunity had been lost to redeem the ‘Land of Israel’ up to its natural frontiers.”

Ben-Gurion wrote to Charles de Gaulle years later about Israel’s intentions with respect to the second phase of the war (May 1948–January 1949): “If we could expand our borders and liberate Jerusalem in the war that the Arab peoples were launching against us, we would liberate Jerusalem and western Galilee and they would become part of the State.”

Did the Jordanians sense that Ben-Gurion wanted the whole city? There are some indications of this. The first one concerns the economic underdevelopment of East Jerusalem during its nearly 20 years under Jordanian rule (1948–1967): the Jordanians emphasized Amman and the East Bank while neglecting the economic growth of the West Bank. The reason was not just preference for the Hashemite capital of Amman. According to historian Michael Hudson, investment in East Jerusalem was pointless, because “the Jordanian authorities feared that sooner or later Israel would strike again.”

A second indication of Jordanian understanding of Ben-Gurion’s perspective on the city comes from Glubb. In his memoirs he wrote that in 1948, weeks before the end of the Mandate, a Haganah officer had mentioned to an Arab Legion officer that the Jews knew what the Legion was about to do in Arab Palestine. He then said that the Jews did not mind as long as the Legion did not interfere with Zionist forces in Jerusalem. When asked what would happen if they did, the Haganah officer replied, “You will only enter Jerusalem over our dead bodies.” Glubb surmised, “Perhaps the Jews had long beforehand determined to seize the whole of Jerusalem.”

Though Ben-Gurion signed armistice agreements in January 1949, his comments to the cabinet a few months later put his willingness to stop short of a united Jewish Jerusalem in context. Explaining why he did not rush into peace treaties, he said he believed that Israel had time on its side in all the major issues—borders, refugees and Jerusalem. On the latter, he felt that the idea of internationalization was fading as people grew accustomed to the status quo. It was a perspective that matched his long-term vision that eventually the Zionist goal would be fully achieved, including repossession of all of Jerusalem. As long as practicalities demanded a different situation, then he could rationalize less-than-complete outcomes. However, his overall goals remained intact.

Emoting Over the City

On December 5, 1949, in response to a renewed debate in the UN over Jerusalem and the holy places, Ben-Gurion further cemented his position on the city. He announced in the Knesset that Jerusalem could not be separated from Israel. His address was couched in powerfully emotive terms, filled with references to the history and longing of the Jewish people over millennia, appealing to the core identity of the first Jews to become Israelis. In this speech Jerusalem is Jewish, holy, sovereign, worth dying for. It is the heart of the state, the eternal capital:

We regard it as incumbent to declare that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel—just as it is an integral part of the history of Israel, of its faith and of the spirit of our people. Jerusalem is the very heart of the State of Israel. . . .

. . . It is inconceivable that the U.N. should attempt to sever Jerusalem from the State of Israel or to infringe the sovereignty of Israel over its eternal capital.

. . . Our links with Jerusalem at the present day are no less intense than they were in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and Titus Flavius; and when Jerusalem was attacked after the 14th May, 1948, our heroic youth were capable of laying down their lives for our holy capital city, no less than our forefathers did in the days of the First and Second Temples.

. . . We declare that Israel will never abandon Jerusalem of its own volition, in the same way as we have not for thousands of years given up our faith, our national character and our hope of return to Jerusalem and Zion—despite persecutions unparalleled in history.

A people which for two thousand five hundred years has steadfastly observed the oath which the first exiles swore on the rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem will never acquiesce in separation from Jerusalem. And Jewish Jerusalem will never accept foreign rule, after thousands of its sons and daughters have for the third time liberated their historic homeland and redeemed Jerusalem from destruction and ruin.”

Exactly what Ben-Gurion meant by “Jewish Jerusalem” is a subject of debate. Some claim that he never intended to take the whole of Jerusalem, East and West—that he was satisfied to have a part of the city. Yet, as we have seen, a number of his statements and actions belie that conclusion and add weight to the argument that the whole of Jerusalem was his ultimate objective, an objective based in core identity and ideology. The language in his address speaks to more than West Jerusalem. His Jerusalem is “an integral part of the history of Israel, of its faith and of the spirit of [the Jewish] people,” “eternal,” “the holy capital city” of Babylonian and Roman times, “Zion,” and “redeemed” along with the “historic homeland.” This cannot be only West Jerusalem of 1948. He was staking a claim for the whole.

On December 10, 1949, the UN General Assembly voted by a large majority (38–14, with 7 abstentions) to uphold its 1947 resolution. Jerusalem was to come under a special international regime as a corpus separatum, to be administered by the UN through its Trusteeship Council and governed by its own appointee. Ben-Gurion responded in the Knesset by reaffirming what he had said about Jerusalem a week earlier. Nothing had changed. He remarked, “We cannot assist in the forcible separation of Jerusalem, which would unnecessarily and unjustifiably violate the historical and natural rights of the Jewish people.” He also noted that “the State of Israel has had, and will always have, only one capital—eternal Jerusalem. This was so three thousand years ago and so it will be, we believe, to the end of time.” At the end of the speech, on the prime minister’s recommendation, the Knesset voted to transfer itself and the government of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

60 Years Later

Since the 1948 conflict, Israel has been embroiled in several wars with the Arab world and/or the Palestinians: the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 June (Six Day) War, the follow-on War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon War, the War of Attrition in Lebanon, the First and Second Intifadas of 1987 and 2000, and the 2006 Second War in Lebanon. Despite these wars and various attempts at peace, Jerusalem has never gone off the agenda, because it is fundamental to the concept of both the Zionist state and any future Palestinian state. Ben-Gurion made his position clear before and after Israel’s foundation, and his successors have echoed his commitment; equally, Palestinian leaders—from the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas to Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal—have staked their claim to Jerusalem as capital.

Is there an answer to the Arab-Zionist impasse? Veteran diplomats, highly qualified academics, religious powers and world leaders have each tried their hand for more than a century. Their modest successes (cold peace with Egypt, economic and resource peace with Jordan) are far outweighed by infamous failures (Baker’s Madrid, Rabin and Arafat’s Oslo, Clinton’s Camp David).

Negotiations inevitably call upon legal, security, economic, refugee, territorial and border issues. Those who have witnessed or participated in the endless rounds of failed talks often retreat into a fatalism that declares no foreseeable solution but only problem management. Former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti has concluded that the conflict is “insoluble but manageable.” It is insoluble because it involves “issues of identity, absolute justice, clash of affinity to the same homeland, and conflicting myths.”

Yet it is precisely here, beyond the usual modalities addressed by negotiations, that the real ground for compromise lies. Identity and ideology, said noted psychologist Erik Erikson, are interlinked, almost two sides of the same coin. And, he added, identity is more malleable than we may think. It is in recognizing the need to allow the Other’s identity and ideology to be respected and in realizing that one’s own can be modified for the good that the answer to the more-than-a-century-long conflict is to be found.

The biblical and qur’anic ideal of fundamental change—turning to go the other way, repentance (Hebrew shub; Arabic tawbah)—offers the way forward. As new studies in neuroscience are showing, we can rewire our brains, even with respect to long-held, unwavering and never-questioned notions.

Can Israelis and Palestinians share the same capital city? Yes. Is peace between Israel and Hamas possible? Yes. But the painful and rewarding commitment to shub and tawbah comes first.