Israel has not yet declared its detailed positions in future talks with the Palestinians, and for understandable reasons. At this point, the government is justly focusing on the Iranian issue, which constitutes an existential threat. This is the context in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted his visit in Washington D.C.
However, when the actual talks with the Palestinians are launched, Israel will have to avoid making the basic diplomatic mistake that previous governments have made in defining Israel’s primary interests – especially when it comes to Jerusalem. For most of the past two decades, an asymmetry could be observed in how the two parties handled their struggle in the diplomatic sphere. While the Palestinians maintained that their goal was to achieve a Palestinians state whose capital is Jerusalem, most Israeli declarations sufficed with general statements that the goal is peace, or peace and security.
In other words, whereas Israel presented an abstract goal, the Palestinians spoke about a clear and well-defined purpose. As a rule, the side that presents clear objectives is the triumphant one in any political conflict. Little wonder, then, that the contemporary diplomatic discourse is focusing on the Palestinian narrative, and Israel’s arguments have been swept aside. Thus the asymmetry between how the Israelis and the Arabs presented their arguments to the world became one of the central factors responsible for the ongoing erosion in Israel’s diplomatic status.
This process comes despite the fact that Israel’s claims rest on a broad base, and have in the past received solid international recognition, especially when in comes to Jerusalem. In 1967, for example, when the Israel Defense Forces entered East Jerusalem, the Soviet Union’s attempt to label Israel as the aggressor failed. The world’s leading jurists recognized its superior right to possess Jerusalem in light of the fact that Israel had entered the city in a defensive war. U.S. State Department Legal Advisor Stephen Schwebel, who also headed the International Court of Justice at The Hague, wrote in 1970 that “Israel has better title in the territory that was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem, than Jordan and Egypt.”
The esteemed British jurist Elihu Lauterpacht expressed a similar view. Such views are significant in international law, as implied in the constitution of the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Because of the historical circumstances of the Six-Day War, the United Nations Security Council did not insist on a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, as clearly stated in Resolution 242. Morover, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, mentioned at one occasion that Resolution 242 did not include Jerusalem, making it of a different status than the West Bank.
In 1994, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, announced at the Security Council that she rejects the assertion that Jerusalem is “occupied Palestinian territory.”
The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stressed that there was no contradiction between the willingness to hold talks with the Palestinians and the insistence on Israel’s legal right to Jerusalem. Two years after his government signed the Oslo Accords, Rabin reiterated in a speech to the Knesset his belief regarding the need to keep Jerusalem united. This position received further backing by a decisive majority in both houses of Congress in 1995.
Two Israeli governments that proposed to divide Jerusalem have come and gone since then, though they never reached a final agreement. Israel need not be bound to the protocols of a failed negotiation.
To protect Jerusalem, Israeli diplomacy must reestablish the unification of the city as a clear national goal, and not abandon the subject of Jerusalem exclusively to Palestinian spokespeople.
The writer heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and was the Israeli ambassador to the UN.