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.
Israel, Fatah and Hamas, in the midst of the present chaos and carnage this Easter time, have 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.
For once we can see whether the work of imams, rabbis and priests can bear fruit. The secular politicians may be the ones ordering the violence, doing the negotiations and fashioning 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. It is they who have vowed a commitment to peace, a central tenant of all three religions. 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 faiths? Or have they been diverted along life's way by political position over moral principles and by nationalistic myth over historic perspective? They must speak up, loud and clear, and give the leadership so desperately needed.
Right now, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is shunning all compromise on all fronts, over everything. For decades he has rebuffed American and European demands for a total freeze on Israel’s colonization of occupied Palestinian land, by allowing both the size of the settlements and the numbers living there to expand by the month. Now he’s taken a step even further - tolerating Israelis who had taken it upon themselves to evict Palestinian families who hold Israeli citizenship and are living in Arab East Jerusalem. He is trying to get the reach of the Supreme Court circumscribed, all in an attempt to make sure he doesn’t go to jail on corruption offenses. At Easter weekend he also once again sent the police into the plaza atop Temple Mount and into Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s most sacred sites. This was igniting combustion that has led to fire in the very heart of the city, followed by Hamas’s rockets from Gaza and Lebanon.
How Machiavellian can Netanyahu be? And why does President Joe Biden appear to take it on the chin? Netanyahu’s tactics are proving to all that the American emperor has no clothes. The “emperor”, who doesn’t allow the matter to be discussed in the UN Security Council, is now walking naked into the conference chamber of 80% of world opinion, and Israel will continue to run rings around him.
President Bill Clinton was profoundly wrong after the Camp David meeting broke up towards the end of his term in office to lead the U.S. side in berating Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, publicly for not compromising on Jerusalem. He seemed not to understand 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, in the detached manner of Western diplomacy, assumed this was a very fair deal. It was, indeed, but it wasn't enough. Consider the fallout from contemporary history.
There is no question that at the time of the ending in 1948 of the British mandate Jerusalem belonged to the Palestinians. Stupidly, the Arabs lost West Jerusalem in their ill-judged war with Israel in 1948. Then in 1967 during the Six Day War Israel captured and annexed 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 recognized 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, it is also just as obvious that the 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 probably not within the realms of possibility.
Once again, we have to begin to think seriously about the idea (first mooted in this column) of internationalizing part of East Jerusalem. For the present the suggestion of a UN Security Council 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.
With his recent audacious, provocative and damning moves, Netanyahu has raised the stakes over Jerusalem. Is President Joe Biden prepared to widen his focus from just settlements to Jerusalem as well? Is he prepared to use the stick as well as the carrots? If he is not, Netanyahu will have proved once again that Israel can always best America, whoever is president. And Netanyahu will have demonstrated that no one seems able to stand up to him.