Today, Israel celebrates Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marking 44 years since the reunification of Jerusalem by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six Day War. Public commemorations here take many forms including speeches, marches, concerts, educational programs, and cultural events. See a full program here in Hebrew and here in English.
Yom Yerushalayim is more religiously oriented than Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and is less enthusiastically celebrated by secular Israelis and those who live outside of the Jerusalem area. Still, over the past two days, Israelis of all backgrounds participated in the festivities and marches. Today, I witnessed large groups of secular Israelis on solidarity tours of the Old City and many a street corner filled with people draped in Israeli flags singing songs about Jerusalem.
Many of the events today center around the Old City and the Kotel (Western Wall), the ancient retaining wall of the mount on which the Temple once sat. The Kotel is the holiest site in Judaism second only to the Temple Mount itself on which Jewish worship is forbidden by the Waqf. The symbolism of this destination is deeply embedded in the Israeli national consciousness and is central to the celebration of Yom Yerushalayim. To understand the oft-quoted Israeli insistence on Jerusalem as the united and sovereign capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, you must understand this history, ancient and modern.
Before the founding of the State of Israel, Muslim authorities severely restricted Jewish access to both the Mount and the Kotel, although these restrictions were lessened under the British Mandate. The UN Partition Plan of 1947, which proposed the splitting of the western territory of the British Mandate between Jews and Arabs and included a special clause for Jerusalem. UN General Assembly resolution 181 recommended that the city holy be internationalized and under United Nations administration for a period of 10 years, after which the residents of the city would be free to hold a referendum deciding whether to modify the “regime of the City.” The resolution also called for open access to all religious sites for Jerusalem residents, citizens of both the Jewish and Arab states, and international visitors “in conformity with existing rights.” The Jewish delegation accepted these terms, the Arab one rejected them.
In the ensuing war, called Milchemet HaAtzmut (War of Independence) by Israelis and al Naqba (the catastrophe) by Arabs, Israel held control of the western “new city” while the Jordanian Arab legion consolidated its hold on the Old City and the surrounding environs. Although the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian Armistice agreement called for “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives,” these provisions were never honored by the Jordanians.
When the city was reunited under Israeli control following the 1967 Six Day War, Jews were allowed to freely worship at the Kotel arguably for the first time in 2000 years. Moreover, the Waqf’s de-facto control of the Temple Mount itself was preserved. To open the plaza in front of the Kotel, the municipality bulldozed the existing Arab “Mughrabi Quarter”. This move hardly rivaled the wholesale destruction of holy sites, businesses, and homes wrought in the Jewish Quarter upon consolidation of the Jordanian conquest in 1949, but it remains a painful point of historical contention between the city’s Jewish and Arab residents.
While Israeli’s annexation of “East Jerusalem” remains contentious, the most enduring images of that day, June 7, 1967, remain those of triumph, national pride, and religious, historical, and national redemption. The famous photos of Israeli paratroopers praying at the Kotel (see image above), Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the shofar, and Moshe Dayan, Yitzchak Rabin, and Uzi Narkiss entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate are deeply evocative for Israelis from the left to the right. The meaning of a “United Jerusalem” for Israelis is not merely that of military victory, but of the righting of a deep historical wrong ending a two millennia long separation of the Jewish people, symbolically and often physically, from their biblical capital.
As such, it is not hard to understand why the current government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu insists that it is a matter of “national consensus” that Jerusalem remain united in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Over the past month, the PM has hammered this message home to both Israeli and international audiences. During his address at the opening of the Knesset’s summer session (16 May 2011), the PM laid out six basic issues on which he believes there is a national consensus regarding negotiations with the Palestinians:
- The Palestinians must recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
- An agreement with the Palestinians must signal an end to the conflict and an end to demands by the Palestinians on the State of Israel.
- The problem of Palestinian refugees must be resolved outside of the borders of the State of Israel.
- The Palestinian state must be established only under a peace treaty with Israel in which said state is demilitarized and Israel maintains a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.
- The settlement blocs in the West Bank must remain within the State of Israel
- Jerusalem must remain the united and sovereign capital of the State of Israel.
Netanyahu went further during his speech at the annual AIPAC conference on 23 May 2011. Here he highlighted that Israel is “the cradle of our common civilization” and “the crucible of our common values” which has guaranteed full democratic rights for all its Muslim and Christian citizens. As such, “only Israel can be trusted to ensure the freedom for all faiths in our eternal capital, the united city of Jerusalem.” In his speech before Congress the next day, he reiterated this theme saying, “Only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths in the city.” Given the long Jewish history of being denied freedom of worship at its most sacred shrines, this argument has obvious resonance for Israelis and Jews worldwide.
He also asserted that the vast majority of those Israelis who live beyond the pre-1967 borders of Israel, reside in “neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv” which are densely populated but geographically small. In any “realistic peace agreement,” these areas must be incorporated within Israel’s final borders. This too speaks to the Israeli national experience, that the country’s borders have always been defined by where Jews succeeded in establishing residence. As such, the demand that Israelis be uprooted from their homes to accommodate a border which existed for but a brief nineteen years (1949-1967) and since on paper alone is an anathema to many.
So to what degree are Netanyahu’s points of “national consensus” in fact representative of prevailing public opinion in Israel? The first point is one of key concern to Israelis and is intrinsically tied to the second and third. It is generally believed in Israel that the Palestinians do not accept the existence of the State of Israel and seek its destruction. These perceptions are strongly bolstered by Palestinian rhetoric to this effect and public opinion polling which shows that Palestinians see a two-state solution as a stepping stone to a single state of Palestine on the whole of Israel. A true peace, it is argued, requires a change in these attitudes.
A key indication of such a change, Netanyahu argues, would be the basic recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Not only is this identity strongly valued by Israelis, but recognition by the Palestinians might indicate that they are ready to resolve the conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples, also strongly preferred by Israelis to a single bi-national state. Tied to this recognition would be the cessation of refugee claims which Israelis see as another means to undermine a two-state solution and the status of Israel as a Jewish state. Whether it is Likud, Labor, Kadima, or Yisrael Beiteinu, all the major Israeli parties agree that a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees must be met only within a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s fourth point, that of a demilitarized state and a long-term Israeli presence along the Jordan River, also seems to be within the national consensus. Although Israelis are strongly supportive of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, very few believe that such discussions will actually result in peace. Bolstered by the belief in overriding Palestinian hostility to the Jewish state, ironclad security guarantees are demanded by the most of the Israeli public in any peace agreement. That the Palestinian state will be demilitarized has long been a condition of peace negotiations from Oslo to the present, although the definition of “demilitarized” has not always been consistent.
As for an Israeli presence along the Jordan, both Israeli policy makers and the Israeli public have long recognized the area as a critical security asset for the state. As early as 1967, policy elites were considering what territorial compromises might be made for peace and the Jordan Rift Valley was consistently treated as non-negotiable. In the public sphere, while willingness to relinquish territory for peace has grown, opposition to concessions along the Jordan Riven has remained strong. Over at least the past decade and a half, Israelis have been consistently unwilling to relinquish the Jordan Rift Valley, often opposing withdrawal from here more than from any other territory (with the partial exception of Jerusalem).
Yet, as a policy preference conditioned largely by security concerns, this could be subject to change. Indeed, the same non-negotiable security value which Israelis have long ascribed to the Jordan Valley were once applied equally to the Gaza Strip and Sharm El Sheikh on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Regarding the latter, when it was perceived by the public that peace with Egypt was actually possible, opposition to withdrawal dropped off. With regard to the former, support for “disengagement” grew as demographic concerns rose in prominence and shrunk as security threats grew. However, after Israel withdrew and rocket attacks proliferated, support for reoccupation remained weak.
Where public opinion has been more stable is on the question of continued Israeli control of major settlement blocs. Although support for withdrawals of any kind is not strong, particularly given the security environment, this support increases when conditioned on continued Israeli control of the major Jewish communities in the West Bank. Nor are Israelis particularly open to the idea of leaving Jewish settlers to live in areas under Palestinian sovereignty. On the question of land swaps, although support is not strong when considered outright, when framed as an exchange of populated areas, Jewish for Arab, willingness to concede territory in kind increases substantially.
Finally, we are left with the question of Jerusalem. Is preserving a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty a part of the national consensus? At first glance, yes. When framed as “dividing Jerusalem,” the Israeli public has always strongly rejected the proposition. Yet, when framed as giving up Arab majority neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem, support for territorial concessions increases significantly. Indeed, between 2000 and 2001, when the Institute for National Security Studies changed the framing of its annual survey question in this way, support jumped from 24% to 51%, although support in the following years dropped to the low 40s.
In April 2008, a Peace Index poll showed similar results. While support for any territorial division of Jerusalem was weak, support was by far strongest when considering withdrawal from Arab neighborhoods. Support was weaker for joint administration of the Temple Mount (which is essentially the de facto reality today) and incredibly weak regarding the possibility of placing the Old City under PA sovereignty. These results are complimented by the INSS’s findings of very weak support for withdrawal from the Temple Mount.
What does this tell us? Opposition to the division of Jerusalem is indeed a point of national consensus, but it is a nuanced point which is surprisingly flexible in certain areas. As with concern for control of the major settlement blocks, Israelis are not prepared to give up heavily populated Jewish areas of the city under any circumstance. They are, however, more willing to consider relinquishing those areas which are not seen by most of the Israeli public as meaningfully a part of “their” Jerusalem. Areas like Shuafat Refugee Camp, Issawiya, and Kafr ‘Aqab certainly fit this bill. But, when it comes to areas deemed central to the national narrative, particularly the Old City and the Temple Mount, the bargaining space shrinks substantially.
Given the turbulent regional environment and increasing international pressures on Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, it behooves those interested in a negotiated settlement the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to understand these points of seeming national consensus. Whatever the external costs, there are some red lines which no government can afford to cross; namely offering those concessions which are enormously unpopular and are believed to spell the demise of the state itself. Yet, especially on a proud day such as Yom Yerushalayim, it is important too to recognize that Israel cannot afford to simply ignore these external pressures. Israel is entitled to its red lines. But it should also be acknowledged that there are still elements within the “consensus” which can be open for discussion which neither necessarily threaten national identity, compromise the national interest, nor override the will of the majority.