Allow me to start on an intensely personal note. I love Jerusalem.
The real Jerusalem, the down-to-earth Jerusalem, with its
ever-changing light, stones, sounds, and smells.
Ever since, as a boy, I used to walk in the 1940s from Mount Scopus
to the Western (Wailing) Wall, where I looked up at the imposing
structure from the narrow alley in front of it, I have had a
profound attachment to this city. I had a sense of happiness when
crossing the invisible line into the Arab sector, which is by far
the more beautiful one.
During the 19 years of the Jordanian regime in East Jerusalem, I
sometimes took a room on the upper floor of the King David Hotel,
just so I could look at night over the Old City wall and listen to
the remote noises; hear dogs barking and try to imagine what life
was like over there. I dreamed then, and I dream now, of a day when
Jerusalem will be really united, a place where all its diverse
components meet and mingle.
David and Saladin
Enough of nostalgia, let's return to "reality." Reality is that the
Israeli and Palestinian narratives about Jerusalem - as about
practically every other aspect of the historic conflict - run on
parallel lines, so it seems as if they are bound never to
Arabs tend to ignore the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish religion
and its place in Jewish history, whether real or imagined. Indeed,
imagined history can be far more powerful in its influence on
day-to-day events than the real one (if such a thing exists). It is
enough to read the Psalms and the story of King David - who may
never have existed - in order to grasp the mystical fascination
that Jerusalem exerts on the Jewish mind.
Israelis, on the other hand, tend to belittle the importance of
Jerusalem in Muslim religion and Arab national consciousness. In
Arab history, real or imagined, Jerusalem is bound up with such
central figures as the Prophet himself, the Caliph Omar and the
liberator Saladin, to mention just three.
Jerusalem was not invented by the Zionists as a trick to dispossess
the Palestinians, nor by the Palestinians to evict the Jews. For
Jews, Muslims and Christians, the passion for Jerusalem is real. It
is dangerous for any side to disregard the profound feelings of the
other. In the life of nations, it is irrational to ignore the
irrational; it is rational to recognize the power of the
The Hashemite Obsession
Many of the seeming irrationalities of Israeli policy stem from
this attachment to Jerusalem, for example, the Hashemite obsession
that dominated Israeli policy until after the beginning of the
first Intifada, and to some extent still does. One obvious
attraction of the Hashemites lies in the fact that they are not
Palestinian. If you don't desire or don't believe in peace with the
Palestinians, knowing that somewhere along the way the refugee
problem will raise its head, any substitute will do. King Hussein
always was the first choice.
But there was a more practical reason: Jerusalem. The reasoning
went like this: A Palestinian state will always demand Jerusalem as
its capital. Jordan, on the other hand, already has a capital -
Amman. Therefore, the king can give up Jerusalem in return for
peace. This was based, of course, on a complete lack of
understanding of Jordan, of the king, and of the Arab attitude
1968: 'Not One Single Palestinian'
I myself can testify to Israeli delusions. During the June 1967
war, immediately after Israeli troops had occupied all of the
remaining parts of Palestine, I publicly called upon prime minister
Levi Eshkol to allow the Palestinians to set up their state on the
West Bank and the Gaza Strip. When the war came to an end, Eshkol
was kind enough to invite me for a talk, and I explained my
proposals at length. He refused them, of course.
I devoted the next few months to canvassing the established
Palestine leaders on the West Bank - Anwar Nusseibeh in Jerusalem,
Hikmat al-Masri and Hamdi Can'an in Nablus, Ahmad al-Ja'abari in
Hebron, Aziz Shehadeh in Ramallah, and several others - in order to
find out if they really desired a Palestinian state. All of them,
even those publicly identified with the Jordanian regime, told me
in private that this was indeed their first choice.
I brought this up in the Knesset (I was an MK at the time) and
subsequently Moshe Sasson, then the prime minister's advisor on the
occupied territories informed me that he had been asked by Eshkol
to meet with me, in order to find out on what I based my
assertions. This was typical of Eshkol. We met in the Knesset
building on November 19, 1968. Soon after, Sasson sent me an
advance copy of his report to the prime minister, so as to give me
a chance to verify the details. In this document, the copy of which
is in my possession, the salient sentences are as follows:
"…I gave Mr. Avnery my assessment of the political mood of
the West Bank leaders. I had the impression that there were no
differences between my assessment and the assessment of Mr. Avnery
(i.e., their preference for an independent Palestinian state)
…apart from one central point…
"Since we (i.e., the Israeli government) are not ready to give back
Arab Jerusalem and since I do not know even one single Arab who is
interested in a Palestinian state without Jerusalem, the discussion
of a Palestinian state becomes abstract and immaterial. Whoever
requests that the government should act for the establishment of a
Palestinian state must make clear that he is for giving back East
Jerusalem, or at least, a part of it, to the Arabs…
"Neither I nor Mr. Avnery could point out even one Palestinian
leader on the West Bank who is ready to support the idea of a
Palestinian state without Jerusalem. Asked by me, Mr. Avnery
explained that his formula for Jerusalem, at this point, is:
'United Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the capital of the
joint institutions and the capital of the Palestinian
Eight years later, in 1976, after informing prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin about my (then) secret contacts with the PLO leadership, I
had several long conversations with him about this subject. Rabin
strenuously objected to the idea of dealing with the Palestinians
and stressed the absolute imperative of making peace with King
Hussein. His main argument was again Jerusalem: the king could give
it up because his capital was in Amman.
1995: 'Our Jerusalem'
In 1975, after Said Hamami, PLO delegate in London, conveyed to me
that the PLO leadership was ready to start contacts with an Israeli
organization (until then the contacts between Hamami and myself had
been one-to-one), a group of Israeli personalities established the
"Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace." Its manifesto
declared: "…that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel.
Being sacred to three religions and inhabited by two peoples, it
deserves a special status. It will remain united as a joint
municipal unit, open to people of all nations and religions.
Jerusalem will remain the capital of the State of Israel, and its
Arab part can become, after the establishment of peace, the capital
of the Arab Palestinian state…"
Twenty years later, Gush Shalom (the Peace Bloc), founded in early
1993 as a militant movement, decided to tackle the Jerusalem taboo
head on. On May 12, 1995, the Gush held a demonstration on the
so-called seam-line (the pre-1967 border) in the middle of
Jerusalem, opposite the Notre Dame Monastery. This is a main
thoroughfare, generally congested, and our objective was to test
public reactions to the idea of a shared Jerusalem. We brought with
us a big green sign, modeled on ordinary Israeli road signs, with
two arrows, one pointing to "West Jerusalem, capital of Israel" and
the other to "East Jerusalem, capital of Palestine." A group of
Palestinian leaders joined us.
The high point of the event was a speech by Faisal Husseini, the
acknowledged leader of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.
Speaking about the future, he said: "I dream of the day when a
Palestinian will say 'Our Jerusalem' and will mean Palestinians and
Israelis, and when an Israeli will say 'Our Jerusalem' and will
mean Israelis and Palestinians."
It was then that I got the idea of the "Our Jerusalem" Manifesto
(see p. 122), promoting the concept of "Jerusalem - Capital of Two
States," which strove to put an end to the myth of a "united
Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel alone." Within weeks, it was
signed by many hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians,
creative artists like the late Emile Habibi, A.B. Yehoshua, Natan
Sachs, and the late Yehudi Menuhin; by eight laureates of the
prestigious Israel Prize; by some 200 leading academics and many
outstanding political personalities. A very representative group of
Palestinian leaders from Jerusalem signed the manifesto at a public
press conference. They included Faisal Husseini, PLO leader in
charge of Jerusalem; Ziad Abu-Zayyad, now a Palestinian Cabinet
member; Hanan Ashrawi, member of the Palestinian Legislative
Council; journalist and filmmaker Daoud Kuttab, and Ambassador Ali
Kazak. In a meeting with several of the Israeli signatories, Yasser
Arafat publicly approved the manifesto.
Proposals for a Unique City
In the six years since the "Our Jerusalem" Manifesto, there has
been a general move towards the acceptance of its core idea of
"Jerusalem - Capital of Two States." Several other peace
organizations, including Peace Now, have adopted it in one form or
another, or come close to it. This trend was formalized by
president Bill Clinton in his famous initiative, just before
leaving office early in 2001. He formulated his new attitude in his
remarks to the Israeli Policy Forum, as follows:
"I come to the issue of Jerusalem, perhaps the most emotional and
sensitive of all. It is a historical, cultural and political center
for both Israelis and Palestinians, a unique city sacred to all
three monotheistic religions. And I believe that the parameters I
have established flow from fair and logical positions.
"First, Jerusalem should be an open and undivided city, with
assured freedom of access and worship for all. It should encompass
the internationally recognized capitals of two states, Israel and
"Second, what is Arab should be Palestinian, for why would Israel
want to govern in perpetuity the lives of hundreds of thousands of
"Third, what is Jewish should be Israeli. That would give rise to a
Jewish Jerusalem, larger and more vibrant than any in
"Fourth, what is holy to both requires a special care to meet the
needs of all. No peace agreement will last if not premised on
mutual respect for the religious beliefs and holy shrines of Jews,
Muslims and Christians."
Old Taboos, New Understandings
Ehud Barak's positions were much more ambiguous. He never clearly
accepted the Clinton principles, but, using an old Zionist tactic,
said that he might do so after their acceptance by the
Palestinians, thus putting the onus of rejection on them. During
the Camp David summit, Barak, in all his various compromise
proposals, always insisted that the final, overall sovereignty over
all parts of Jerusalem, including those whose "administration"
would be turned over to the Palestinians, would reside with
Matters came to a head when the discussions turned to the area
called in Hebrew "the Temple Mount" (Har Habayit) and in Arabic
"al-Haram al-Sharif" (the Noble Shrine). In practice, it would have
been logical to turn the enclosure of the two Islamic shrines over
to the Palestinian state, with the Western Wall below belonging to
Israel. The Palestinian side seemed to be ready for such a
compromise. However, Barak and his foreign minister, Shlomo
Ben-Ami, using several verbal subterfuges, refused to cede the
sovereignty over the Mount to the Palestinians, thereby putting an
end to any compromise on Jerusalem.
Barak can be credited with "breaking the taboo," which previously
forbade any negotiation on Jerusalem. However, it should be
remembered that in the Oslo agreement, Israel solemnly undertook to
negotiate the Jerusalem issue in the framework of the final-status
negotiations, which should have started long ago.
Just before leaving office in February 2001, Barak declared all
Camp David understandings, including the Clinton proposals, null
and void. But even this final act of betrayal cannot undo what has
been done: the taboo has been shattered. In the minds of millions
of Israelis, Palestinians and others, new ideas are taking hold.
Once the dark clouds that hover at present over Jerusalem and the
whole country disperse, any serious new negotiations will start not
from the old taboos, but from the new understandings.
Our Jerusalem will triumph.