In recent weeks, President Barack Obama returned Jerusalem to the limelight when he described continued Jewish apartment building in eastern parts of the city as being “very dangerous” – a euphemism for the threat of Palestinian violence. Then, this past week, the European Union backed Palestinian demands that eastern Jerusalem become a future Palestinian capital.
Jerusalem has been a diplomatic flashpoint since 1949. That is one of the less fortunate legacies of Dr. H.V. Evatt, Australian external affairs minister at the time.
In 1947, Evatt played a pivotal role in persuading the UN to adopt a partition plan calling for Arab and Jewish states in British-controlled Palestine. However, facing elections at home in December 1949 and with an eye to the large Australian Catholic vote, on which his Labor government depended, he ensured the plan called for internationalizing Jerusalem, which neither side wanted, but which the Vatican did.
It did not work out that way. Arabs rejected partition, with the result that Palestine was partitioned by war, not agreement. Jerusalem ended up divided between Israel and Jordan. Both opposed internationalization when Evatt successfully introduced a U.N. resolution to that effect this month sixty years ago.
International fixation on Jerusalem has been with us since, even if enthusiasm for internationalizing the city quickly receded. U.N. committees and trusteeship proposals devoted to Jerusalem provided a special, exploitable focus for the anti-Israel cause. But this was afforded practical outlet only when Israel came into possession of the city’s eastern half after repelling Jordanian assault in 1967.
Historically and religiously of relatively low importance to Islam – it is never mentioned in the Quran – Jerusalem used to transfix few Muslims, while its Jewish roots had once been freely acknowledged by them.
Under Jordanian control (1948-67) eastern Jerusalem had degenerated into a provincial backwater, of little interest to Arab rulers. Saudi princes never dropped in to Jerusalem to pray at the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa mosque when visiting the fleshpots of nearby Beirut. As late as the 1920s, publications of the Jerusalem waqf, the Muslim religious trust, spoke plainly of the Temple Mount, upon which the mosques are built, as the historical site of Jewry’s Temple.
Today, however, the picture is diametrically opposite.
In Khomeinist Iran, an annual Jerusalem Day parade instituted in 1979 and attended by crowds of up to 300,000 tops all other dates in the regime’s activist calendar. Fatah, which only mentions Jerusalem en passant in its constitutive documents, today boasts a terror group called the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
A profusion of Palestinian statements and Muslim clerical rulings on Jerusalem speak variously of an historical Jewish presence, if at all, as having been brief; of the non-existence of the biblical temples, or of their location elsewhere; and of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest extant site, being actually a Muslim one.
Such sentiments are disseminated widely in the Arab world. A popular piece of Egyptian graffiti declares “It’s our mosque, not their Temple.”
Moreover, Jerusalem has been successfully exploited by violence for diplomatic profit by Palestinian leaders. In 1996, Palestinian riots on the back of Yasser Arafat’s trumped up charge that Israel’s opening of an archeological tunnel endangered the mosques on Temple Mount produced criticism of Israeli provocation.
In 2000, a visit to Temple Mount by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, pre-arranged with Arafat, was distorted by Palestinian media into a violation of Muslim sanctuaries (which had not in fact been entered), leading to international criticism of Israel and a Palestinian terror wave.
It would therefore appear that President Obama, to put the best construction on his words, did not know what he was doing when he spoke as though there was some correspondence between Israelis building apartments and Palestinians rioting – or worse.
To speak in these terms places a premium on Palestinian violence and increases the probability of its occurrence: the record shows it to be a paying proposition. Noting the European Union’s willingness to publicly side with Palestinian positions rather than support unprejudiced negotiations, Palestinians now have reason to believe that political capital might be exacted by a little violence. That means that trouble might follow, quite soon.
All of which carries the following implications. For the foreseeable future, peace negotiations will either not resume at all, or lead nowhere, certainly not to a lasting peace. Jerusalem will remain a flashpoint, with violence easily encouraged by public stances taken in favor of Palestinian positions. And Dr. Evatt’s 1949 resolution – conceived in a different world, motivated by domestic political calculations long forgotten – will demonstrate anew the law of unintended consequences.