A separate peace for Jerusalem

September 10, 1996|By Yossi Klein Halevi

JERUSALEM -- Through three years of peace talks, Yasser Arafat consistently has threatened a holy war to ''liberate'' Jerusalem. In a speech last year, he urged his people to fight for the city to the last Palestinian child if necessary. Even though Mr. Arafat's call for Palestinians to defy the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza and gather last month on Jerusalem's Temple Mount didn't result in violence, the long-promised battle for Jerusalem has apparently begun.

In assessing the competing claims to the city, a distinction must be made between the spiritual Jerusalem, sacred to three religions, and the mundane Jerusalem, home to 350,000 Jews and 150,000 Palestinians. The spiritual Jerusalem cannot be owned exclusively by any faith; the devotions and holy places of its Muslims, Christians and Jews are part of its essence. The spiritual Jerusalem belongs to all who love her; but the political Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Sovereignty over Jerusalem has been the central aspiration of the Jews for 3,000 years. By contrast, the Palestinian national claim to the city can be measured in decades -- precisely as long as the Palestinians have defined themselves as a separate nation, rather than simply as members of the greater Arab nation. No Arab state ever made Jerusalem its capital, even when presented with the opportunity: From 1948 to 1967, Jordan ruled East Jerusalem, yet maintained its capital in Amman.

The Arab world, though, has cherished Jerusalem as a spiritual center. And that is the relationship Israel is obliged to honor.

The center point of Arab devotion to this city is the Temple Mount, from where Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel took possession of East Jerusalem, government policy has granted Muslims de facto control of the Temple Mount -- even though the site of the ancient Temple is Judaism's holiest place (not, as commonly is assumed, the Western Wall, which abuts it).

In practice, the Muslim authorities have forbidden Jews from praying on Temple Mount, and Israeli police faithfully uphold that ban to prevent the Arab-Israeli conflict from degenerating into a Muslim-Jewish holy war. Some right-wingers see that concession as a betrayal, and their decades-long campaign to allow a formal Jewish presence on Temple Mount is gaining support, particularly among Orthodox Israelis.

The Netanyahu government must resist that demand, not because it is wrong but because it is dangerous. Any attempt at this stage to introduce even a modest Jewish presence on Temple Mount likely would result in not just a Palestinian but a pan-Muslim holy war.

The permanent loss of Temple Mount would be traumatic for Orthodox Jews whose Messianic expectations are focused on a rebuilt temple. Nevertheless, Israel should defer its claim to Temple Mount until Messianic times. As part of a final peace agreement, Israel should offer to formalize the current status quo and transfer full authority to the Arab world, in effect turning Temple Mount into a Muslim Vatican.

A utopian vision

Just as sharing the Temple Mount between Judaism and Islam is a utopian vision that would lead to disaster, so too would be sharing the city itself between Israel and a future Palestine. Indeed, given the level of mistrust between Arabs and Jews, sharing the city means inevitably dismembering it. And a city with a wall through its heart loses its vitality, as proved by Jerusalem itself, which came to life only after its reunification in 1967.

Palestinian rule over part of Jerusalem almost certainly would mean a drastic increase in Islamic terrorism here. Wherever Palestinian self-rule has emerged, Islamic terrorist groups have thrived, beyond the reach of the Israeli army. Mr. Arafat, who alternately restrains the terrorists and allows them free rein depending on how he perceives his political needs, has yet to prove himself a trustworthy partner in the war against terror, and therefore a trustworthy guardian of Jerusalem.

A future rapprochement between the Jewish state and the Arab world should be based on Israel ceding its claim to the Temple Mount and the Arabs ceding their claim to the rest of the city.

While a majority of Israelis might be persuaded to surrender their holiest site for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, no Arab leader today is prepared to legitimize Israel's control of the city. But that solution, recognizing the difference between spiritual and temporal possession, should unite all who pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report and author of ''Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.'' He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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