Poets as diverse as William Blake and Yehuda Amichai have sung the praises of the heavenly Jerusalem, a land without strife or rancour, war or bitterness, envy, acquisitiveness or hatred. Until last week and President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s de facto capital, Israel, Fatah, Hamas and their common interlocutor, the US, had the historic opportunity to take a giant step towards making the present day Jerusalem acquire, at least in some of its aspects, the earthly prototype of the heavenly Jerusalem. Some of us have long hoped to see whether the work over decades of many imams, rabbis, ministers and priests could bear fruit. The secular politicians may be the ones doing the negotiations and ordering the compromises but it is the teachers of the three great deistic religions who have been charged from above to exert their mandate to teach compassion, goodness, tolerance and brotherhood, and make a non-aligned Jerusalem the centre that brings the three Abrahamic religions into an embrace.
These traits of virtue, as common to them all as is their God, is being tested in the hottest of fires. Have their peoples imbibed the true message of their faith? The question for this Christmas month is can enough of them stand up against the new alliance of Trump and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Over decades Israel has rebuffed American demands for a total freeze on Israel’s colonisation of occupied Palestinian land by allowing both the size of the settlements and the numbers living there to expand by the month. In 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu, in an earlier term as prime minister, even went a step even further - announcing that Israel had decided to evict Palestinian families in Arab East Jerusalem to allow Jewish families to take over. Now, in a symbolic move, Trump has ordered the US embassy to be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that anti-Zionist Israelis see as a collusion with Netanyahu’s hard line, anti-Palestinian policies.
President Bill Clinton was profoundly wrong after the Camp David meeting broke up towards the end of his term in office in berating Arafat publicly for not compromising on Jerusalem. He seemed not to understand Yasser Arafat's observation: "The Arab leader has not been born who will give up Jerusalem". Clinton looked at the enormous compromises the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, had already made and assumed this was a very fair deal. It was, indeed, but it wasn't enough.
There is no question that at the time of the ending of the British mandate Jerusalem belonged to the Palestinians. They lost West Jerusalem in their ill-judged war with Israel in 1948. Only in 1967 during the Six Day War did Israel capture and annex East Jerusalem and its Old City. (But it did allow Islamic authorities to continue to exercise control over the two ancient mosques and the great stone plaza atop the Temple Mount.) At one time the U.S. itself recognised there would be no peace until this occupation was reversed, hence its vote for UN Resolution 242 in 1967 that called on Israel to withdraw from "territories occupied". Thus it is a matter of international justice that at the very least the Arab parts of East Jerusalem be returned to Palestine, as long as Jews have free, untrammelled, access, to their sacred site, the Western Wall which sits at the foot of Temple Mount. (Imagine, by comparison, the wrath of the German people if Berlin were still occupied by the Allies.)
Nevertheless, Jewish identity is now so bound up with the idea of Jerusalem (a fuzzy concept if ever there was one, since present day Jerusalem is four times the size of the one that existed in 1948) that to prise Israel loose by a process of capitulation is going to be a very uphill task.
Once again, despite (and because of) the moving of the American embassy, we have to begin to think seriously about the idea of internationalising part of East Jerusalem. For the present the long-time suggestion of a UN Security Council-ruled fiefdom only extends to the Temple Mount, but once that principle is accepted the possibilities of geographical extension to include some of the neighbourhoods around shouldn't be so difficult to swallow. There can be two stages, a couple of years apart.
With his audacious and damning move Trump has raised the stakes over Jerusalem. Most of the big powers, the Islamic world and the Pope have criticised him. That is not enough. If the rest of the world is not prepared to resist Netanyahu and drive through the internationalising of the city he will have proved once again that Israel always turns out on top. For that not to happen we need the faith of the founders of the Abrahamic religions.
Copyright: Jonathan Power