The Arabs of Palestine have always nurtured a strategy to avoid negotiating a peace deal with the Israelis; and it is that they won’t negotiate at all unless Israel meets so many Palestinian preconditions that the map from which they and their Arab neighbors launched their wars would be completely restored in advance of talks. Poof: There was no Six Day War in 1967 and there was no Yom Kippur War in 1973. Forget both of these and smaller battles in between and after. Then, OK, let’s meet and see where we can go from here or actually there. Which, as Barack Obama didn’t quite have the nerve to say but certainly meant, is the armistice lines of 1949—yes, that’s exactly what he intended and almost said.
So, 63 years after, the president wants to enshrine the momentary configuration of where the fighting happened to stop as the formal and operative borders between the State of Israel and Palestine, notwithstanding that there are now two putative Palestines (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) governed by two enemy regimes and that there is another one waiting to be birthed in Jordan. (Look, I like the Hashemites, sort of. But they don’t have long for this world. You believe in Arab Spring? Then why shouldn’t roses also bloom in Amman?)
It’s true that Obama’s scheme allows for a reciprocal transfer of real estate between Israel and the not quite nascent Palestine. But, given the fuss his administration has made even about Jewish land going back three millennia, like the City of David as if it had been a water hole or a mere parking lot for chariots, you have a sense of the utter ahistoricity of the president’s perspectives on these matters. The fact is that Jews and Arabs will not live neighborly lives once it is clear that Palestinian half-rule does not mean the restoration of the Mandelbaum Gate and the Jews excluded from their deepest history and their most sacred sites. (I know that many liberals and especially Jewish liberals don’t cotton to the idea of Jewish sacred sites and think it downright primitive. Ah, but a Muslim shrine! Well, you know the difference, of course you do.)
For nearly 20 years, the world sat quite comfy with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with help from the local Arabs, having occupied and then destroyed the entire ancient Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem which, according to the 1947 Palestine Partition and a later resolution, was supposed to be governed with the rest of the city, along with Bethlehem and other localities, as a corpus separatum. Included in this territory was the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and the Hadassah Hospital, then, as now, the most advanced patient care institution and medical school in the region. Of course, the internationalization of Jerusalem, which the Zionist authorities accepted, never came to pass. All of “east Jerusalem” was governed by King Abdullah I, who made sure that no glory attached to what we are now endlessly told is the third holiest city in Islam. The internationalization scheme was dead. In response in 1949, Israel took “west Jerusalem” as its capitol, which almost no foreign government recognized formally, but all duly and dutifully sent their emissaries up to Zion for business.
Even given the facts established by the Jordanians in old Jerusalem and the neglect by them of the West Bank (called by history and modern Zionism, Judea and Samaria), the Israeli prime minister offered to restore the captured lands to Arab sovereignty. But already then—that is, 1967—Colonel Qaddafi was in power in Libya. He cast a thrall over the Arab League and established the principles of Arab diplomacy with Israel: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations. It is grotesque that Qaddafi has lasted so long and, as late as last year, could command the attendance of the whole malfunctioning “Arab family” (except for Lebanon, a sick member by itself, which was offended by a diplomatic slight) plus King Juan Carlos, Ban Ki-Moon, the chairman of the European Commission, the chairman of the African Union, and a special representative of People’s China at yet another conference on the “situation” in Palestine.
Palestine may or may not secure some sort of recognition for itself at the forthcoming meeting of the General Assembly, when the emissaries of dictatorships come to New York for a big shopping spree. But it will not much change things on the ground. In fact, the more the Palestinians deal in symbols the less ground they will have left to claim. This should be the lesson of the last four and half decades. So long as the Palestinians refuse to negotiate there will be less to negotiate about. Israel is a dynamic society. It cannot, it will not wait for the Arabs of Palestine to adjust to reality.
Take the new construction announced a few days ago by the Israelis for Ariel, 11 miles east of the Green Line, a literal agricultural line, green as in agriculturally developed, in case you wondered. Yes, it juts into the West Bank. But it is also 33 years old and has some 18,000 inhabitants. Now, 277 housing units will be built—and more if the Palestinians don’t come to the table quickly. This, by the way, is neither a right-wing community nor a religious one. And it boasts a university with 11,000 students, of which close to 1,000 are Arab. There is no way that Ariel will be forfeited to the Palestinian Authority.
The issue in Jerusalem is very different. And more intricate. It is, aside from being a Jewish city, also an Arab city. With Arab history, Arab hopes, Arab actualities. The cartography of a settlement in the city will take as least as much ingenuity as good will. Moreover, there is land to the east of the municipal lines on which “Arab Jerusalem” can be expanded as “Jewish Jerusalem” was expanded. Again, I have little idea of how exactly the “whole” city will be governed and even if it will be as a “whole.”
But there are certain principles that cannot be ignored. The first of these is that this tiny place is the heart of Jewish history. The second, and by extension, is that the city is also the heart of Christian history. Together this goes back three millennia to King David, omitting the trajectory from Abraham for wont of evidence. So, frankly, Arab caviling with Jews over a house that belonged to Haj Amin Husseini, the Hitlerite Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but was in an old Jewish neighborhood, is more than slightly obscene. Indeed, the denial of the epochal past of Jews and Christians (after all, they are intimately bound) is not worthy of the Muslims who recognize it in the Koran. Remember, then, that if there were no Jewish temple there was no Jesus or Jesus figure, and the entire history of Christianity collapses.
Israel is altering the face of Jerusalem. And so are the Palestinians, the latter through unrecognized and illegal immigration from the West Bank to the city. Hundreds and hundreds (there are no really vouchable numbers) from Hebron have moved into Silwan. I believe that this is evidence that many Palestinians simply do not want to live under Palestinian jurisdiction. Another 12,500 Arab residents of the Holy City have simply become citizens of Israel which, apparently, in their situation was easy to achieve. Wouldn’t you rather live in Israel than in Palestine? As the restive Arabs of Israel, Palestinian nationalists all, would also rather be Israeli citizens than citizens of Palestine.
After all, there is the difference between a free and prosperous country and … whatever Palestine will be, God help them.
Yet, in Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post, there appeared a balanced editorial comment, “The PA economy,” pointing to the impressive (but relative) prosperity in Judea and Samaria and also to its literal dependence on Israel. But remember that Palestine would not be impoverished Egypt or backward Jordan. So there is reason to move on.
The major impediment to moving on is actually the relentless psychodrama of the president about new Israeli construction in the territories which is little and far between. It has squeezed the Palestinians into a corner where many of them and certainly most Israelis did not want them to go. Maybe it gave Obama some moral thrill to castigate one of America’s most faithful allies. After all, he has not had many thrills at all. But the utter collapse of his Middle East diplomacy can be traced to his and Hillary Clinton’s apoplexy over a small neighborhood here and another one there. And all of this rancor when the two of them were still playing out the charade of Bashar Assad as a force for peace. Shame on them for being so insistently stupid and for purporting to have the moral credit for going into hysterics over a few hundred apartments in a Jewish neighborhood that was founded in 1973 and already has 40,000 residents.
A post-script on building in Jerusalem. There is a danger that the government is courting, and it is in the construction in neighborhoods for ultra-orthodox Jews. It is a matter with a different timbre than the disputes between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians who also need housing. The demographic balance of Jewish Jerusalem is shifting sharply towards the ultra-orthodox. This is an ongoing disaster. For other Jews it means the curtailment of freedoms, the narrowing of public and private culture, the miring of the city in a backward and unproductive economy rooted in psychotic aversion to the real world. For the Arabs of Jerusalem it means hardly being seen at all.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.