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The Deadlocked City


Ariel Sharon knew what he was doing on September 28, 2000. In hot pursuit of the Israeli premiership, he marched onto Jerusalem’s most contentious piece of real estate, the magnificent plateau, paved with pink and gray polished stone, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Other than during the Friday prayers, the site often seems nearly empty. On this particular day, Sharon arrived guarded by almost a thousand armed policemen and soldiers.

He later claimed that his sole purpose had been to test “the freedom of access and of worship” on the Mount. His real motive was to win over the support of the extreme right and thus foil Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to political power. He would attain his aim, though, only with some support from Yasser Arafat. At this time, Arafat also needed to improve his image as a hard-liner. Palestinians had been increasingly dissatisfied with him. They were demoralized by the abstractions of a “peace process” that never brought them any benefits but only increased their daily sufferings and humiliations. Israel, under Ehud Barak, continued to plant more settlers in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem than it had under Benjamin Netanyahu. It was as though during the recent peace talks in Northern Ireland the British government had continued to ship more Protestants from Scotland to Northern Ireland and settled them on land expropriated from Catholics in Londonderry. To protest Sharon’s provocation and improve his own declining image, Arafat either launched a bloody Palestinian uprising or did nothing to prevent it: the worst outburst of violence by Palestinians in a hundred-year conflict that is now more intractable than ever before.

Ehud Barak, the then prime minister, also thought he knew what he was doing in permitting Sharon’s expedition to this most sensitive Muslim shrine. Only a few days earlier, Arafat had been Barak’s guest at a small dinner at Barak’s private house. (In retrospect the setting seems hard to believe.) On this occasion, Arafat made a last-minute appeal to Barak to block Sharon’s visit, just as similar political demonstrations on the Mount had been prohibited before. Barak turned him down. He, too, was badly slipping in the polls. His coalition had broken apart. He wanted Sharon to replace Netanyahu as the Likud candidate. Polls indicated that he had an outside chance to beat Sharon but not Netanyahu.

Barak is a highly intelligent but politically maladroit former general whose hobby is taking complicated watches apart and putting them together again; he is both the most decorated soldier in the Israeli army and an accomplished pianist. He should have known that on Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, the wars of religion continue under a different name. In Jerusalem, hatred has often been another form of prayer and never more so than when the knives are pulled and the bombs are thrown. The religious hatred called odium theologicum has long been an instrument for gaining power and property, whether in local politics or in real estate speculation. Myths of divine promise alternate with myths of Blood and Soil. “History” and “religion” are relentlessly and superstitiously evoked and nowhere more so than on the Haram, or Temple Mount, where Sharon staged his political coup.

Peace-making was never easy before and is now going to be infinitely more difficult. With Pavlovian regularity, unspeakable outrages against civilians now lead to murderous punitive raids that only provoke worse outrages. Even if the recent American-sponsored cease-fire should last, the end is nowhere in sight. So many futile “cease-fires” have preceded it. Is Arafat able to restrain the tiger he’s been riding for almost a year? Can Sharon really be counted on to accommodate Arafat, whom he has been calling “our bin Laden”? There have been hundreds of dead so far and thousands of wounded, most of them Palestinians.


The tenth-century Arab geographer Muqaddasi—the name implies that he was a native of Jerusalem—wrote that the city was “a golden basin filled with scorpions.” The holy places are mostly inside the walled Old City, within a stone’s throw from one another. In some cases, they form part of the same architectural complex.

For Orthodox Jews, the holiness of Jerusalem, however, extends far beyond the ancient walled city. According to Orthodox doctrine, everything seen from a high tower forms part of the sacred territory. After 1948, all synagogues that fell under Jordanian rule were destroyed. Nevertheless, not religious but political considerations were responsible for the new municipal borders of Jerusalem after the annexation of the former Jordanian sector following the 1967 war. Those borders now surround ninety-four square miles, much of it of former Jordanian land.1 The new borders were intended, as Bernard Wasserstein shows in his excellent book, to include as many Israelis and as few Palestinians as possible. And yet, since the Palestinian population grows much faster, it has long been increasingly doubtful whether the Israeli majority can be maintained, even if, as is likely, the municipal area is further enlarged to include the new Israeli satellite towns built after 1967 on Palestinian land.

In view of this likelihood, there has always been a certain crackpot quality to the nationalist rhetoric in Israel on the subject of Jerusalem. When the current mayor, Ehud Olmert, a member of the Likud, was recently asked by a reporter why municipal services in the Arab part of Jerusalem were so bad, he replied angrily that there was no Arab Jerusalem. There was only a “Jewish Jerusalem.” Sharon calls Jerusalem “Israel’s Capital, united for all eternity.” The late prime minister Menachem Begin, who, after dramatically resigning in the wake of the disastrous Lebanese war, spent his last years alone in a shuttered room suffering deep depression, was one of the first to use this slogan. He did so in an ecstatic, ringing voice as though intoning an incantation.

In the early 1980s, to avoid being outflanked on the Jerusalem issue by even more extreme nationalists, Begin decided to support a second annexation law—which redundantly declared that all of Jerusalem was indeed annexed to Israel—and put it through the Knesset. The Labor Party spokesmen said that the bill was unnecessary and even warned that it might cause damage; but then the Labor members of the Knesset voted for it. Yitzhak Rabin stayed away from the vote and argued with Shimon Peres over Labor’s support for the law. To this day, Peres is a hawk on Jerusalem. The only result of the second annexation law was that the few foreign embassies located in West Jerusalem moved to Tel Aviv in protest. The UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for its annexation—fourteen votes to zero. The United States abstained.

I remember asking Begin at the time whether, in his view, “eternity” could be legislated. “In this case it can and must be,” he snapped back. We were sitting at a window table in the Knesset dining room. Begin pointed down the hill toward the Jerusalem Museum. “For proof that we are right you must go there. The remnants of our ancient glory are on view there. We are reviving it in our own days.” I asked him if he agreed with the conventional wisdom that held that Jerusalem must be left to the end of the negotiations or there would never be an Arab–Israeli settlement. Begin looked up and said sharply: “Jerusalem will never be a subject for negotiation!”


A rational solution to the problems posed by two irreconcilable nationalisms in Jerusalem would have been to internationalize the entire city. This, in fact, was recommended by the original UN partition resolution of 1947. Israel accepted it; all the Arab countries did not. The Arab nations launched a war against the new state in 1947 and after the Jews defeated them, the new state of Israel changed its mind about Jerusalem, favoring a secret agreement with Jordan to divide the city between them. Golda Meir and King Abdallah agreed about this even before the guns fell silent. Neither gave a thought to the Palestinians. Jordan promised Israelis free access to the Wailing Wall but did not keep its word. Minefields and high walls topped by barbed wire divided the Israeli and Jordanian parts of Jerusalem.

In theory, internationalization remains an attractive solution if only because it seems so reasonable. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are ever likely to agree to it. They would not even agree to the internationalization of the Old City, where most of the holy places are. By now, generations of Palestinians and Israelis have been forcefully and dogmatically instructed by their political and religious leaders that the Old City is exclusively theirs.

The early Zionists were wiser than their children and grandchildren. Like most European nationalists of the liberal school they were opposed to religious authority. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, never bothered to have his only son circumcised. He advocated the internationalization of Jerusalem. For the capital of his proposed secular Judenstaat (a “state for Jews” as distinct from what later came to be called a Jewish state) he preferred Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Jerusalem, he felt, was redolent with fanaticism and superstition, the musty deposit of “two thousand years of inhumanity and intolerance…. The amiable dreamer of Nazareth has only contributed to increasing the hatred.”

Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, shared Herzl’s feelings. An eminently rational man, Weizmann disliked Jerusalem. He was revolted by rabbis imposing themselves on politics and by politicians playing with religious fires. When the first Palestine partition plan was mooted in 1937, he suggested that only some of the modern parts of Jerusalem, inhabited mostly by Jews, be included in the proposed Jewish state. As for the Old City, “I would not take [it even] as a gift.” Too many “complications and difficulties” were associated with it.

Even as he wrote these words in a letter—preserved in the Weizmann Archives—brown-shirted members of Betar, a right-wing paramilitary Jewish youth movement, were clashing with Arab fundamentalists in Jerusalem not far from the Wailing Wall. They were fostering lethal Arab fears—at the time still based only on pure myth—that the Zionists were planning to tear down the mosques on the Haram and rebuild the Jewish Temple there. Freud referred to these clashes in a letter to Einstein. He was unable to muster sympathy, he wrote, “for the misguided piety that makes a national religion out of a piece of the wall of Herod, and so challenges the feelings of the local natives.” The early Betar extremists (forerunners of Begin’s Likud) were decried at the time as fascists by most Palestinian Jews. As far as we know, no one, not even Betar, contemplated at this time the possibility that the Jewish state they were fighting for would one day claim sovereign rights over the Haram, a site which for the past fourteen centuries had been the third-holiest place in Islam.

  1. 1

    Paris, on 105 square kilometers, accommodates approximately 2.1 million inhabitants, compared to some 600,000 currently in Jerusalem (68 percent Israelis, 32 percent Palestinians).

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