A Preposterous Prospect

The dispute over the future of Jerusalem is not about land. It is about the character of Israel, and the willingness of the Palestinian people to live side-by-side with Israel.

Nathan J. Diament
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Nathan J. Diament

There are politicians, diplomats and journalists who believe that the political division of Jerusalem will enable the rest of Israel to live in peace. The respected commentator Akiva Eldar recently gave voice in these pages to this view, writing in a column, Either Jerusalem will become the capital of two peoples or Israel will become the state of two peoples (Haaretz English Edition, November 15). From this assumption follows a plethora of proposed concessions: ending all housing construction in the citys new Jewish neighborhoods, allowing the Palestinians to open official offices in the city, and removing Jewish families from predominantly Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

To Eldar, the division of Jerusalem is inevitable and desirable, the diplomatic equivalent of a done deal. But aside from the historic and religious reasons to oppose political division, experts whove studied urban dynamics including urban life in Jerusalem will tell you, the prospect of division is preposterous.

Division would set the city on an accelerated path of decline. No city in all of recorded history has been cleaved into two halves without damaging the whole. There is nothing to suggest that Jerusalem would be an exception. In fact, Jerusalem already suffered just such a dismal reality from 1948 until 1967. Brain drain, secular flight, crushing unemployment and simmering discontent among Israelis and Palestinians alike would choke the life from the streets of Jerusalem and thats without sniper fire and rockets, both of which are likely to become a daily reality for those Jews who remain. It is impossible to imagine that Jerusalem would thrive under such circumstances.

The Israeli left would have you believe that Jerusalem can be divided with minimal impact on those areas of the holy city most critical to Jews. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less than a share of the city that is anything but token. They want more than Sheikh Jarrah or Shoafat for their future capital. They want the Temple Mount, along with everything else east of the Green Line.

A serious partner for peace, as current Palestinian leaders are oft-described, might be expected to entice Israelis with promises of ironclad agreements that would protect, maintain and preserve unfettered access to holy sites for Jews and Christian pilgrims. Such a partner might also take steps to prepare their own people for peaceful coexistence.

But the Palestinian Authority has embarked on a different course. Incitement and historical revisionism is still the official policy of the PA. This is the body, after all, which named a public square in El Bireh for the terrorist mastermind Dalal Mughrabi earlier this year. Just last week, it released a report denying any Jewish connection to the Western Wall. President Mahmoud Abbas also has been consistent in his refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

These are not symbolic gestures. They tell us what the Palestinians actually believe. Whatever optimism Israeli leaders once felt about the Oslo process, or the Road Map, is now gone WikiLeaks has revealed that even President Shimon Peres concedes such.

Many fear that a two-state solution will simply lead to a two-stage solution. And Jerusalem will be the pivot on which that process will turn. The reason is simple: The dispute over the future of the city is not about land. It is about the character of Israel, and the willingness of the Palestinian people to live side-by-side with Israel. By denying historic Jewish connections to Jerusalem and its holiest sites, Palestinians lay bare their fundamental animosity to Israels very existence. And we must wonder whether the world leaders who demand Israel cede sovereignty over the Temple Mount would dare ask the same of Muslims with regard to their holiest sites.

Perhaps, as Akiva Eldar suggests, Jerusalem is more of an obsession for Diaspora Jews than it is for many Israelis. If so, that is entirely the fault of Israelis. Fewer than half of Israelis under the age of 18 have even set foot in the holy city, whereas when Jews from abroad visit Israel be they schoolchildren or senior citizens they are certain to set foot upon Jerusalems ancient streets. Those of us who see the city as visitors are glad to be joined on tours by Israels soldiers, themselves learning what they are fighting for.

They are seeing what we have always been feeling, and express with the words next year in Jerusalem that Israel exists because a vibrant Jerusalem exists under Jewish sovereignty. The Palestinians seem to recognize this. When will the rest of us?
Nathan J. Diament is director of the Institute for Public Affairs at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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