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Should Israel be able to build residences in its capital city?
A great brouhaha has arisen about a mid-level bureaucrat in Israel’s Ministry of the Interior releasing a routine notice that 1,600 residences were to be built in Jerusalem. To the surprise of many, this routine announcement was construed as an insult or worse to Vice President Biden, who was visiting in Israel at the time. Mrs. Clinton, the Secretary of State, also was “shocked” and sent a “stern message” of displeasure to Mr. Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.
What are the facts?
Capital of Israel. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and will remain that whatever the final accommodation with the Palestinians may be and whatever the “world,” including the United States, may desire. That has been understood and recognized by every U.S. Administration since the very birth of Israel. Therefore, to be “shocked” by an announcement that Israel will build housing for its citizens in its capital is strange. This is a trumped-up situation and puts the relationship with Israel with one fell swoop on an entirely different level. It is strange because the President himself has stated that Jerusalem should remain undivided as Israel’s capital. So has Mrs. Clinton, especially when she was senator of New York and felt to be much dependent on Jewish support. It almost appears as if somebody in the administration wanted to produce a “crisis” and was looking for an expedient way to accomplish that.
The Muslim Palestinians also claim Jerusalem, or at least its eastern part, as their capital. They want the city to be divided – as it was between 1948 when the Jordanians occupied the eastern part of the city – until 1967, when the Israelis liberated it in the Six-Day War.
The principal basis for the Muslim claim is that Jerusalem does indeed contain an Islamic holy site, namely the Temple Mount (sacred to both Muslims and Jews) with its two mosques, El Aksa and the Dome of the Rock. It is the place from which Mohammed, who never in his life had set foot in the city, is believed to have ascended to heaven. But aware that it was the holy city of Christians and Jews, and wishing to convert them to his new religion, he commanded his followers to build a mosque in Jerusalem. But never in Muslim history did this mosque or this city compare in significance to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina – cities that no “infidel” may visit.
A tenuous Muslim claim. It is on the basis of this religious tradition that the Muslims designated the entire Jewish Temple Mount to be their holy site. The Israeli government, in its constant spirit of accommodation to Muslim sensibilities, has largely acceded to this tradition and has put the area in and around the two mosques entirely under Muslim control. But how would Christians feel if, instead of from the Temple Mount, Muslim tradition had Mohammed ascend from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and if the Muslim Arabs were to claim that site as their property? The Christian world, often ready to consent to Muslim claims against Jews and Israelis, would be greatly astonished and would certainly resist such claim. But Muslim Arab assertiveness doesn’t end there. On the tenuous claim of their right to the Temple Mount, they have construed a claim to the entire city of Jerusalem (or at the very least to its eastern part), which they have declared to be their “third holiest city.” And, it would be an insult to all Muslims and all Arabs to leave the city in the hands of the “infidel Jews.”
Jerusalem: Never an Arab capital. The city of Jerusalem – in contrast to Baghdad, Cairo or Damascus – has never played any major role in the political and religious lives of the Muslim Arabs. It was never a political center, never a national, or even a provincial or sub-provincial capital of any country, since Biblical times. It was the site of one Muslim holy place, but otherwise a backwater to the Arabs. The passion for Jerusalem was not discovered by the Muslim Arabs until most recent history.
But Jerusalem has stood at the center of the Jewish people’s national life since King David made it his capital in 1000 BCE. After the return from Babylonian exile, Jerusalem again served as the capital of the Jewish people for the next five-and-a-half centuries.
Jews are not the usurpers in Jerusalem. They have been living there since the Biblical era and have been the majority population since the 19th century. Jews have synagogues and other holy sites in most cities of the world. But do they claim sovereignty over those cities because of it? Of course not! It would be preposterous and people wouldn’t accept it. Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel and will remain so. That is why there is no reason at all that the Israeli government could not plan and build residences for its citizens – Jews and Arabs – in any part of the city. Those who get out of joint about that are either misinformed or looking for a pretext to create a “situation.”