Yom Yerushalayim and the National Consensus


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:

  1. The Palestinians must recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
  2. 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.
  3. The problem of Palestinian refugees must be resolved outside of the borders of the State of Israel.
  4. 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.
  5. The settlement blocs in the West Bank must remain within the State of Israel
  6. 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.

19 thoughts on “Yom Yerushalayim and the National Consensus”

  1. seems a thorough article clearly written. do you see any “third national entity,” an outside party that could be of help in managing any altered (however slightly) politics in Jerusalem?

    1. add: I was trying to be imaginative and had in mind a real country that would represent the legitimate Christian interest in the city and its well-being, such as Sweden, Finland, etc.

      1. Ariel Zellman has done an outstanding job of providing the historical background to the current situation in Jerusalem. This is tied in nicely to the majority Israeli consensus. It is interesting to note that these six points of Israeli consensus only make sense within a framework of peace negotiation with the Palestinians. In other words, Netanyahu is assuming be his statements that he will at some point be involved in peace negotiations– which is something which most commentators overlook.
        I would like to add to this very thorough article my opinion as to the settlement of the Refugee issue. I think that the problem of Palestinian refugees is so large that it will need to be negotiated separately from all of the other issues, and with all of the countries who have substantial Palestinian populations. For instance, there are many well-established Palestinian families in Saudi Arabia who have been there for at least 3 generations. Of course, this applies even more so to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt/Gaza, and possibly to additional Persian Gulf countries. In a multi-state Arab/Palestinian Refugee conference, I would envision all of these countries needing to offer dual citizenship to their existing Palestinian populations. In exchange Israel would need to offer either territory contiguous to the West Bank for resettlement of some agreed upon number (thousands) of Palestinians, along with some plan for re-unification of refugees with their families who are currently Israeli citizens within the agreed upon final borders. There are today areas in the Galilee (pre-1967 Israel) where Israelis will not establish towns or settlements because they consider these “Arab areas”. In other words, while the article did not comment on this directly, even on the refugee “consensus” there is room to negotiate.
        Finally, I agree wholeheartedly that nothing meaningful can be negotiated until all of the Palestinian leaders agree to end all hostilities against Israel and Jews everywhere in the world, and accept that Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. G-d willing will see this happen in my lifetime.

      2. It may come as a surprise today, but Europe, the Vatican, and even the United States were very involved in the politics of “Christian” Jerusalem during the dissolution of the British Mandate and the early years of Israel’s statehood. The internationalization of Jerusalem as proposed by 181 was, in many ways, less about mediating between Jews and Muslims than it was about giving Christian interests an explicit hand in controlling the city.

  2. You may dismiss this too, but I keep imagining someone like Richard Holbrooke (Zl) the sequel, a woman or man with diplomatic genius for whom a light bulb will come on – truly a new idea that constitutes a breakthrough. I, average Joe, have seen like everyone the talking that just recycles what has been heard before. HOWEVER, there would no point in implementing any viable-looking solution before it has a chance of lasting, and that would seem to depend on the attitude of the people who live there and would have to contribute to its success. I have never been there so this is all thinking from the outside; I don’t claim that any thought I may have about it is right, but nevertheless I find myself pondering the situtation. Best Regards, Steve

  3. Among the many people who have looked into this, the University of Windsor (in Ontario, Canada) has been engaged in this matter for several years with a group called the Jerusalem Old City Initiative (http://www.uwindsor.ca/joci/). This initiative is led by former Canadian and American diplomats working with Israelis and Palestinians.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the group’s proposal is the way it deals with the issue of sovereignty over the old city – it doesn’t. It assumes that the old city cannot and should not be physically separated and that competing sovereignty claims by the Israelis and Palestinians cannot be resolved in this generation. Instead, it would:
    “neither resolve nor seek to resolve competing claims to sovereignty over the Old City and its Holy Sites. Rather, it is designed to permit the achievement of a peace agreement even in the absence of such a resolution — facilitating the smooth functioning of life within this highly contested space without prejudicing the sovereignty claims of either side.”

    To achieve this, the group proposes a “special regime” for the old city: a technocratic government including Israelis, Palestinians and internationals, led by a neutral administrator with international standing. The regime would be responsible for dealing with the everyday issues of city administration that are often fought over today and try to remove them as a source of conflict: policing, access to holy sites, zoning, archeological issues and planning. The regime would also have a role in things like utilities and servicing.

    Residents of the Old City would be citizens of Israel or Palestine depending on their personal situation independent of what part of the city they live in. They would be subject to the same national laws (citizenship, health, education, etc.) as anyone else in their respective country. So an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian citizen could theoretically live side by side in the old city, voting for different national governments, but votring for the same municipal government.

    Canadians are known for their skill at complex compromises and I think this is a good example of one that could work, if both sides were truly willing to make peace.

    This newsletter from the JOCI offers some more details:

    Click to access Newsletter%20%2523%209.pdf

  4. As a P.S. to my last post, as a Toronto-based urban planner, I would love to work in the planning department of the hypothetical “Jerusalem Special Administration”.

  5. I apologize for the tone I took above and using the word dismiss. The recurring thought I’ve had, namely just to stop thinking about this topic, sometimes seems like a good one. It is just a topic that comes around frequently in the news, and as a Jew by choice it is something I can’t quite ignore. Perhaps better just to retain some optimism and stop trying to figure it out. (?) SR

  6. These conditions (no right of return and a demilitarized state that does not include Jerusalem, settlement areas over the green line or control of its own borders) pretty much preclude a two-state solution.

    And if Israeli public opinion is as in line with Netanyahu as you say it is, then Israel’s future is all but sealed as either an eventual bi-national state or an apartheid one.

    1. Sean, whether or not these conditions preclude a two-state solution is up for debate.

      It certainly precludes a two-state solution on the conditions ideally demanded by the Palestinian leadership: one based on a Palestinian state in the entirety of the territories captured by Israel in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem cleansed of its Jewish population, fully armed, in full control of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sacred sites which fill this territory, and with any descendant of Palestinian refugees allowed to live in what remains of Israel…. in short a two-step solution to a single state.

      It may not preclude a two-state solution on the principle of the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, a creative perhaps joint Israel-PA regime in the sacred basin of Jerusalem, a “return” of refugees to a Palestinian state rather than the Israeli one, and limited armament of a new Palestinian state in the interests of regional peace with a sensitivity to Israel’s basic security needs, namely to prevent the rise of and attacks by revisionists violent parties like Hamas in the West Bank.

      Ultimately my point is this: negotiations for peace must be exactly this, negotiations. The Israelis have their red lines and certainly so do the Palestinians. The important thing to recall is that even within these red lines, there is (or at least should be) room for reasoned discussion as long as both parties are serious about peace.

      The Palestinians certainly have doubts about the Israelis and most Israelis have their doubts about the Palestinians. I am not overly confident that these doubts will be overcome in my lifetime, but I am hopeful that there can at least be a conversation. The PA’s recent unilateralism, refusing to talk peace during the West Bank building freeze, demanding its extension in order to have talks in which they refused to engage previously, and then turning to the UN for recognition outside of negotiation only threatens to close this discussion altogether.

      1. You’re painting a caricature of Palestinian demands, one that is completely at odds with all of the documentary evidence released recently by al-Jazeera in the form of “the Palestine Papers,” not to mention the official Arab League initiative of 2002, to which Israel still has not deigned to respond.

        What the PA has offered up goes well beyond the “red lines” of most Palestinians, yet even that has proven to be insufficient for Israel. Netanyahu has shown time and time again that he is against a two-state solution.

        Remember when the Israelis used to say, “we can’t negotiate with you if you’re shooting at us.” That is a reasonable enough point, yet so is this: we can’t really negotiate on how to split the rest of this pizza if you won’t stop eating it.

        And finally, how is going to the UN “unilateral”? Especially when the only countries likely to oppose Palestinian statehood are the US, Israel and the Confederated States of Micronesia (maybe Palau, too). After all, wasn’t the declaration of Israeli statehood (not to mention the UN partition plan) done against the wishes of fully two-thirds of the population of Mandate Palestine? You know what is unilateral (read: not recognized by any other country in the world)? Israeli settlements, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and the occupation of the West Bank.

      2. Hi Sean,

        I’ve already written a fair amount on the Palestine Papers and what they mean for resolution of the conflict, in particular:
        In short, I am hardly painting a caricature of Palestinian demands nor is it “completely” at odds with the documentary evidence to which you refer.

        The document which you reference does show SE claiming numerous concessions (never stated publicly), but when the documents surfaced, he denounced them as a pack of lies. The Palestinian public reaction to these suggested concessions and the institutional weakness of the Palestinian Authority, moreover make the PA incapable of delivering on such promises if they were ever made. SE also references this in the document you cite.

        Second, you make it seem as if Israel is the only one changing facts on the ground in the territories. Anyone who has spent time in the West Bank in particular can tell you that Palestinian population growth, urban expansion, and rural expropriation of public lands have changed the character, both physically and politically, of the landscape as much if not more so than Israeli settlement construction. A freeze is fine, but it must go both ways if one is to follow your logic to its ultimate conclusion..

        Finally, there is a difference between unilateral actions and unilateral institutions. Few would argue that the UN is a unilateral institution and, without a doubt, the Palestinians enjoy automatic majorities in the General Assembly for just about every motion they request be put forward on their behalf. However, in the context of negotiations, unilateral action is any action taken by one negotiating party to determine the outcome of said negotiations without engaging with the negotiating partner. In this case, it means turning to an external institution (the UN) to impose your will rather than attempting to achieve your objectives through bilateral negotiation.

        Simply because the UN is a multilateral organization does not mean that appealing to the UN is not a unilateral action. If the objective is a negotiated solution to the conflict, than unilateral actions, even if taken to appeal to multilateral institutions, compromise the bilateral (or in this case perhaps even multilateral) character of negotiations for settlement. What you mention as “unilateral” actions by Israel are precisely those that are supposedly under negotiation. There must be a starting point for any negotiation and the status quo is usually a good place to start…. that is, unless you have a time machine.

      3. Among others, I can guarantee that Canada would vote against a unilateral declaration at the UN.

  7. Ariel,

    there is just one problem here that you seem to be entirely overlooking;

    Every single one of the 6 points outlined above would be entirely reasonable, but for one obvious problem, for a two state solution, both states have to be viable. If all the conditions above are met, how is the Palestinian state to be viable? There’s won’t be sufficient water supply, there’s no where near enough to accommodate the agricultural and industrial needs for the entire Palestinian state including returned refugees, it won’t be geographically continuous and will invariably be very dysfunctional. A dysfunctional Palestinian or worse failed Palestinian state just means more conflict. The two state solution is the way to go, no doubt, but you need two viable states.

  8. Niall, what you are pointing to is a fundamental problem not just of a “viable” Palestinian state but of the viability of two states in an area lacking sufficient natural resources period.

    The skeptics use this point to argue that because resources are scarce, that there simply is not enough space for two states between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In many ways, this is consistent with the approach of the UN Partition commission in 1947 which insisted that although there should be two states, Jewish and Arab, on the territory of the former British Mandate, they should be joined in economic union.

    Proponents of a two-state solution highlight that Israel has had a long history of sharing scarce resources in the region with surprising success; note considerable cooperation between Israel and Jordan regarding use of water from the Jordan River as well as considerable development and resource management assistance which occurs between Israel and the Palestinian Authority today despite high politics seemingly to the contrary. The problem of scarce resources, they argue, is one of adequate cooperation and coordination.

    As for geographic contiguity, those territories populated mostly by Palestinians are already non-contiguous, e.g. the West Bank and Gaza. To address this issue, numerous proposals have been made regarding a dedicated land bridge, rail line, or exclusively Palestinian highway. The West Bank itself is already a checkerboard of overlapping access roads, tunnels, and bypasses which allow for freer travel by both Israelis and Palestinians without substantial interaction between the two. This has meant less impeded travel for both populations and fewer “arbitrary” checkpoints which were so frustrating to Palestinians during the Second Intifada.

    If there is to be a two-state solution, it is highly unlikely to be one without messy borders and overlapping jurisdictions and it certainly will require sustained cooperation between the two resulting state entities. In the case of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, conventional notions of “viability” simply won’t fit. Creativity will be required by all sides.

  9. I don’t know what Ariel thinks of this, but the group Christians for Fair Witness has gone through all the Palestinian Papers. From their analysis at least, it appears much of the reporting on the papers was not particularly accurate.

    I know some Israeli journalists asked the Guardian to produce the documents where the Palestinians dropped the “right of return.” It hasn’t been produced as far as I know. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in some private discussions, but the papers don’t show it.

    Christians for Fair Witness is not an evangelical group, but mainline Protestant.

    Here’s its analysis on RoR.


    Here’s its analysis of the 2008 Olmert peace offer and the Palestinian response or non-responce. Based on this, and again I haven’t read all the documents, I think it is fair to wonder if the Palestinians were negotiating in good faith or just putting on a show.


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