Jerusalem: The Renewed Diplomatic Struggle over the City’s Future

, May 8, 2018

Well before President Trump announced his intention to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an intense diplomatic struggle was being waged regarding the city’s ultimate fate.

True, the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO included Jerusalem as one of the five issues that the parties would discuss in order to reach a permanent status agreement. But while some believed that Israel agreed to make Jerusalem negotiable, the Rabin government, at the time, remained adamant about Israel retaining an undivided Jerusalem.

In fact, in his final address to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, one month before his assassination, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose government signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO, detailed how he envisioned the future borders of Israel. It was a haunting speech when read in retrospect, for unknowingly he was leaving us his political legacy. He stated clearly that a “united Jerusalem…under Israeli sovereignty” would remain the capital of Israel. 

It should always be remembered that Rabin was born in Jerusalem. He commanded the Har’el Brigade of the Palmach, which was tasked to break the siege of Jerusalem, and he was the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces in 1967, which liberated the Old City in the Six-Day War. He saw how its ancient synagogues had been destroyed or desecrated after the previous war in 1948.

Rabin knew what was at stake. He stressed the importance of freedom of religious access and worship, which had been denied to Israel prior to 1967. He was not about to divide Jerusalem, no matter what pressures Israel would face. 

Let me add that the same can be said of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By the way, Rabin’s positions are those of the vast majority of Israelis today, with 79% insisting on Israel retaining a unified Jerusalem (Israeli pollster Mina Zemach, March 2017). 

Despite our positions, a diplomatic assault on Jerusalem nevertheless followed in all the main UN bodies over the past 15 years, propped up by that organization’s notorious bloc voting (and you know how that works). In 2004, the UN General Assembly affirmed that Jerusalem was “occupied Palestinian territory.”

But then it took another step, not only characterizing the present, but also rewriting the past. In 2016, UNESCO, the United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization, asserted that the Temple Mount was connected to Islam, but it refused to acknowledge any Jewish connection whatsoever, or – for that matter – a Christian connection. In its resolution, it only used Islamic terms for the area – namely, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Haram al-Sharif. The words “Temple Mount” were completely gone.

Israel’s adversaries and their allies took this campaign to the UN Security Council as well, with the infamous Resolution 2334, adopted in December 2016 during the transition period in Washington between the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration. By yet again calling Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory,” the United Nations was assigning title in a territorial dispute and hence interfering in any future diplomatic process by prejudging its outcome.

Twenty years earlier, in 1996, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, who went on to become President Clinton’s Secretary of State, strongly rejected the use of that term. Yet in 2016, the United States abstained in the resolution vote, so that the UN Security Council adopted this language, in support of Israel’s adversaries. The United Nations was tilting the diplomatic scales distinctly to their advantage.

Then in December 2017, during the unfolding battle over Israel’s historical rights, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, added a new twist in order to protect the mythology on Jerusalem that he was disseminating from any Israeli counter-attack. He told the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, “Jews are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion.”

My friends, it is one thing to defend your own faith, which I respect, whether you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian. It is quite another to deny the validity of another faith, which is something I strongly reject.

Apart from the United Nations, another front to erode Israel’s ties to Jerusalem opened in July 2000, when PLO leader Yasser Arafat launched a new campaign aimed at undermining Israel’s claims. He stated at the Camp David summit that there never was a Temple in Jerusalem. His lieutenants, like Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Nabil Shaath on the Palestinian side, provided a chorus backing him. In common political parlance, the Temple came to be known as al-Haikal al Maz’um, the “imaginary sanctuary.”

I guess none of them ever read the works of Plutarch, Tacitus, or Josephus, all of whom described the Temple in detail. Did they forget the original Arabic name for Jerusalem, Bait al-Maqdis, which if it sounds similar to the Hebrew name for the Temple, Beit Ha-Mikdash, it is because it is the identical term. In fact, they conveniently ignored the pamphlet you see here, published by the Supreme Moslem Council of Jerusalem in 1924, which was led by none other than the renowned, or notorious, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem.

In this brochure, the site of Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, is described as “one of the oldest in the world. Its identity as the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.”  “Beyond dispute.”

I believe the real purpose of the present-day spate of Palestinian statements is to raise doubts about the authenticity of Israel’s historical claim to Jerusalem. So whenever Israel points to its historical rights, people, intelligent people, will ask themselves: Is that really true? Or is it just another “narrative,” as legitimate as any other alternative claim? And you know what?  The diplomacy of doubt unfortunately works.

A few examples:

In 2001, the prestigious University of Chicago Press published an academic book dismissing the biblical accounts of the First and Second Temples as “a national-historical tale.” Its author might as well have called it a fairy tale.

In October 2003, Time Magazine described the Temple Mount as “an area where the Jews believe Solomon and Herod built the First and Second Temples.”

The New York Times entitled an article on October 8, 2015, “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place.” (For those who didn’t do so well on their English bagrut, “elusive” means hard to find, or establish). 

Finally, Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, one of the Big Ten universities, in the Midwest, went so far as to argue in 2010 that “archaeology does not show the existence of a Jewish kingdom” in Jerusalem. 

There are many similar examples. Denying Israel’s roots in Jerusalem has been going mainstream. The doubts we hear at the United Nations, in academia, and in the mass media have all been feeding into each other. There is a real danger that these repeated assertions about Jerusalem will enter into the swamp of political correctness in the West and will be used against Israel.

So for the next 20 minutes, I would like to answer these voices – with recorded history. To be more precise: We will look at six of the most ubiquitous claims, and bring six factual answers.

So what is the first false claim?

That there was never any historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem. There was no Temple. No ancient Jewish kingdom. No Kingdom of Israel, no Kingdom of Judea. Nothing. Really?

These are royal seals of the Kings of Judea. They were found at the foot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  They all carry the names of the biblical Kings of Judea.

This one here is the seal of King Hezekiah, a direct descendent of King David. In short, there were Jewish kings who ruled in Jerusalem! – contrary to what may have been said at the University of Michigan.

Then came the theory that there was no Davidic dynasty. And that if King David or his son, Solomon ever existed, they were no more than “village chieftains,” incapable of monumental construction like a Temple. Well, this is an Aramaic stone from the ninth century BCE found in northern Israel. It carries the engraved words “House of David” and “House of Israel” among ancient Aram’s rivals.

Anyone here tonight read ancient Greek? This 2,000 year old stone, found next to the Temple Mount, is an original sign in ancient Greek marking rules of entry to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The stone on the left is from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and after tonight’s program you can go see it, but the full text of the Greek inscription is in the Museum of Istanbul. It makes specific reference to the “Temple Precinct.” The word highlighted in orange on the right, “oieron” (pronounced hieron) is the Ancient Greek word for Temple.

Why was the Temple so important? In the Bible, its construction is the only event dated in relation to the Exodus from Egypt – 480 years earlier. It therefore symbolized freedom, national independence, national identity, and unity. It was the point where one could draw closest to the Divine Presence. By the way, prayers were offered at the Temple for other nations, too. Non-Jewish rulers who were aware of its importance – from Darius, King of Persia, to Augustus Caesar – offered gifts for the Temple service. The Temple thus integrated Jewish particularism with Jewish universalism. We see documented awareness of the Temple’s significance in this detail etched in the Arch of Titus in Rome, which shows sacred ornaments being looted after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

In fact, we learn from this inscription at the entrance to the Roman Colosseum, deciphered in the 1990’s by a team of mostly Italian archaeologists, that the building of the Colosseum itself was financed with the spoils of war from the victories of Titus. We know that his only significant spoils of war were from his military campaign in Judea, including the precious valuables he stole from the Temple. What an irony. The Temple, which was the center of Jewish spirituality, was exploited by Rome to pay for a structure in which Jews and Christians were thrown to the lions.

Speaking of the Romans – one last historical fact before we continue. A Jewish army re-grouped in the second century CE, 65 years after the destruction of the Temple, under a commander known as Bar Kochba. He minted coins calling for the “Freedom of Jerusalem.” His Jewish guerilla army fought off six Roman legions. After crushing the Bar Kochba revolt, in 135 CE, the Roman occupiers decided to annihilate all Jewish hope for freedom. They renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina (Aelius was one of the names of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Capitolina referred to the gods like Jupiter, said to dwell on Rome’s Capitoline hill). 

And they also gave the land of Judea a new name…. Syria-Palestina. This is the actual origin of the name “Palestine.” That was the methodology then – and that is the methodology today: attacking our very identity.

Today, it is called the de-legitimation of Israel.

Well, let me tell you something: It didn’t work then – and it’s not going to work now.

Let’s get back to the purveyors of doubt. The second claim goes: “Maybe there was a temple at one point in history; But that historical connection was cut almost 2,000 years ago. Since then – you Jews forgot all about it.” Now nations who lost their lands as a result of foreign conquests oftentimes formally renounced their historic rights, as did the Ottoman Empire in 1920 with the Treaty of Sevres. Territories were often ceded in treaties of surrender. But this was not the case with the historical connection of the Jewish people with Jerusalem, as noted by international jurists, who commented on the League of Nations mandate.

The fact is that the Jews did not abandon their ties to Jerusalem; they reinforced them. This was a matter of law, political consciousness, and religious practice. They built their earliest synagogues in Babylonia with stones and earth from their Temple in Jerusalem.

This synagogue here, preserved on Masada since the 1st century CE, faces north – the direction of …you guessed it, Jerusalem. In fact, every synagogue in the world, from antiquity and until the present day, faces Jerusalem.

There have been those who believed that after the Romans annihilated Judea, there were no Jews left there with any connection with the past. Yet according to Christian and Jewish sources brought forward by Prof. Moshe Gill in his monumental study, A History of Palestine, published by Cambridge University Press: “The Jewish population residing in the country at the time of the Muslim conquest in the 7th century consisted of the direct descendants of the generations of Jews who had lived there since the days of Joshua bin Nun.”

And this document from that period, found in the Cairo Geniza, records the efforts to assist the restored Jewish community in Jerusalem after the Muslim conquest, led by the second Caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab.

Three hundred years later, the Islamic historian, al-Muqadassi, complained that Jews and Christians were the pre-eminent groups in Jerusalem. So you see, despite everything – from the Roman period to the 2nd Caliph of Islam and since – Jews always came back.

According to the testimony of the Spanish-Jewish poet Yehuda Al-Harizi, who visited Jerusalem in 1216, Saladin – the Sultan who led the military campaign against the Crusaders – issued a proclamation inviting the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Despite the insecurity and continued warfare, Jews streamed to Jerusalem from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Southern Europe, and even England and France.

Here, the Barcelona Haggadah from the 1300’s, an illuminated manuscript, serves as an illustration of how Jerusalem was still in the minds of one of the largest Jewish centers in 14th century Europe.

This is the page containing the words we recite at the end of every Passover Seder – “Leshana Haba’ah BeYerushalayim, Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Let’s move forward, to yet another claim made against the links of the Jewish people to Jerusalem that says, “There was no significant Jewish presence in Jerusalem. The Jews came back en masse in the early years of the 20th century, alongside the British colonialists.” What is the hidden insinuation of this claim? That the Jews were a beneficiary or a tool of British imperialism, rather than an authentic national movement.

Is there even a grain of truth in that assertion? No. The truth is that Jews moved to Jerusalem as soon as circumstances allowed. And, again, the facts are clear.

In the 15th century, Jewish immigration increased to such a scale that the Franciscans petitioned the Pope to issue an edict prohibiting Christian sea captains from carrying Jewish passengers to the Holy Land. If there was no deep Jewish connection to Jerusalem and no surge in immigration, why would the Franciscans need to petition against their travel? The persistence of the Jewish connection produced surprising reactions, like the declaration of Napoleon Bonaparte, during his Egyptian campaign in 1799, “To restore to the Jews their Jerusalem.” It was the first acknowledgement of Jewish historical rights to the Holy City by a European leader.

By the mid-19th century, the British Consulate in Jerusalem determined, according to this diplomatic cable, which I found in the Public Record Office in Kew, that Jews were a majority in Jerusalem already in 1863 – long before Theodore Herzl, the British arrival, or the establishment of the State of Israel. 

And this is William Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. In 1870, after he completed his term in office, he visited Jerusalem. He made the same observation. His memoirs of the trip reported a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.

In fact, by the outbreak of World War I there were already 45,000 Jews in Jerusalem, out of a total population of 65,000. 45,000 out of 65,000, almost 70% of the population! So, the fact is, there was a steady Jewish majority in Jerusalem, long before the colonialist era or World War I.

You cannot link the Jewish return to Jerusalem to the colonialist locomotive.

But here comes another claim.

UN resolutions have argued that Israel’s actions in the Old City of Jerusalem are “illegal under international law.” Let’s look at that for a moment.

People forget that the British Mandate, which formally recognized “the historic connection of the Jewish people to Palestine,” was a legally binding treaty of the League of Nations – the main international body formed after World War I. It authorized the Jewish people “to reconstitute” their national home. The Mandate recognized our historical rights and enshrined them in modern international law. It established a legitimate legal claim.

The Mandate did not create Jewish rights. It recognized what was understood to be a pre-existing right. With the formation of the United Nations in 1945, the new body adopted Article 80 in its Charter, which specifically preserved all the rights that existed in the time of the League of Nations. Thus Israel is the only country whose legitimacy and legal roots derive from both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Still, there is an even more contemporary source regarding Israel’s legal position in Jerusalem that is completely overlooked.

In May 1967, a coalition of Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq began to mass their forces along our borders, declaring their intention to annihilate Israel. A ring of armies was closing in. Israel’s very existence was in jeopardy.

On June 5, at 07:45 AM, the Israeli Air Force pre-empted an impending attack. Israel implored Jordan to stay out of the war. Jordan answered Israel’s pleas – with intense artillery fire on Jerusalem’s Israeli neighborhoods. Nearly 6,000 buildings were damaged. We all know what happened next.

Israeli paratroopers liberated the Old City of Jerusalem. Tough warriors burst into tears before the Western Wall. It was a victory that reached back across 19 centuries to the Roman legions that had vanquished the Jewish state, and hence shook Israeli consciousness to the core. But let’s put these emotions aside for a moment.

Was this an illegal occupation of foreign territory?

The Soviet Union tried to advance a new narrative right after the Six-Day War, by having Israel branded as the aggressor. It tried this first at the UN Security Council, but it failed. Then it tried again in the UN General Assembly, its home stadium, and it failed again. It was as clear as day that Israel had acted in self-defense.

This is Stephen M. Schwebel, not exactly a household name. He wrote an important article in 1970 in the American Journal of International Law about Israel’s claims in the territories. What elevated its importance was his subsequent appointment as the legal advisor to the U.S. State Department, and later, the President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Schwebel wrote that the rights of a state acting in self-defense to territory are superior to the rights of an aggressor attacking that very same territory. He compared Israel’s rights to other claimants at the time.

In his own words, “Israel has better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem…” In short, Jerusalem was legally captured in a war of self-defense. And that makes Israel’s legal claim rock solid.

I come now to the fifth false claim against Israel in Jerusalem. A claim that has led to terrible bloodshed – that due to Israel, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger; that Muslim religious practice is oppressed, and by implication, that the Palestinians would take better care of Jerusalem than Israel does. Would the Palestinian Authority really take better care of Jerusalem, and the holy sites of all faiths? Let’s look at historical precedent.

When Jordan invaded Jerusalem in 1948, it placed the Jewish Quarter of the Old City under siege. The Jews of the Old City were either killed, expelled or imprisoned. Today we call this “ethnic cleansing.”

 In the photo on the left, Jews are fleeing the Old City through the Zion Gate. Some 55 of Jerusalem’s ancient synagogues were destroyed and desecrated. Many of the Old City’s great institutions, like Porat Yosef on the right, were blasted into rubble. Many of the headstones of the centuries-old Mount of Olives cemetery were uprooted. Since that day, no Jew was allowed to enter the Old City. Access to all holy sites was denied – until Jerusalem’s reunification 50 years ago in 1967.

Are we the ones endangering the religious heritage of the Holy City? I know what they say – that was 50 years ago. Things have changed. Give them a chance. Well – we did.

On the left you see Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. A city under Palestinian jurisdiction since the 1995 implementation of the Oslo II interim agreement. The Tomb was desecrated and torched by Palestinians in 2000. And in the center you see the Church of the Nativity in Palestinian-governed Bethlehem. In 2002, a joint Hamas and Fatah cell invaded it, desecrated the site, and took the clergy as hostages.

Then there is the assertion that Israel threatens the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Really?  Photographs like these were shot by hidden cameras on the Temple Mount. This is how the Waqf, backed by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, exploited the administrative powers granted by Israel since 1967 and have treated the most important and precious archeological site in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount: with bulldozers, jackhammers, and dump trucks.

These are not isolated examples. Look around us – across the Middle East. Violent intolerance is destroying holy sites across the region. 2,000 year-old Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan. Churches in Egypt, like the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. And mosques, like the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq, or the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq.

The destruction is occurring almost everywhere. That is – everywhere but in Israel. The fact is that not only does Israel not compromise holy sites, but it stands out as the only protector of such sites in the entire Middle East. True, Israel is still a young society. We have our own internal difficulties to iron out. But it is clear that in a violent intolerant Middle East, only a free and democratic Israel will safeguard the holy sites of all faiths.

People nevertheless ask, how do we solve the Jerusalem question? Do we restore the status quo ante to the Holy City? In November 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, proposing an international regime for Jerusalem, which the United Nations called a “corpus separatum.”

At the end of the first Arab-Israeli war, our first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stood in the Knesset on December 8, 1949 and delivered a powerful speech. The world was still demanding the internationalization of Jerusalem, effectively separating Jerusalem from the new State of Israel. Ben-Gurion answered: “A nation that, for 2,500 years has faithfully adhered to the vow made by the first exiles by the waters of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem, will never agree to be separated.”

Ben-Gurion then announced that given the fact that the United Nations did not lift a finger to protect Jerusalem from invasion, the internationalization proposal from Israel’s perspective was null and void. Five days later, he established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Just recently, on December 10, 2017, Hanan Ashrawi told Fareed Zakariah on CNN that the corpus separatum was still relevant. It was an idea that would not die. So when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he gave backing to Ben-Gurion’s declaration and effectively put to rest the internationalization idea. He was also correcting decades of diplomatic distortions at the United Nations.

And finally, he was fulfilling the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, the bi-partisan initiative co-sponsored by Senators Tom Daschle and Bob Dole, calling for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That was the greatest gift the United States could give to Israel on the 70th anniversary of its birth.

My friends, the fight for Jerusalem is a fight for the respect and preservation of its diverse religious heritage – for all humanity. This freedom can only be safeguarded under Israeli sovereignty. What is at stake in this struggle is the preservation of our common civilization. Will we keep Jerusalem free, or let it be engulfed by the hostile forces seeking to take over the Middle East? Israel will protect Jerusalem.

Nothing can change our prophetic ideal of peace. It is the same biblical ideal etched in stone just opposite the United Nations building. It quotes the prophet Isaiah:

 “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This universalistic ideal about the centrality of peace as a supreme value is the gift of Israel – to the people of the world.

Our ancestors fought for freedom in Jerusalem, as the coin from the Bar Kochba revolt attests. Today – this honorable cause is up to us to defend.

Thank you. 

About Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.