The 1967 Six-Day War broke out exactly 38 years ago. And on June 6, celebrated around the world as "Jerusalem Day," the Israel Defense Force liberated Jerusalem's Old City. But questions on the political status of this holiest of cities remain.
Is the Temple Mount really "in our hands," as Gen. Motta Gur reported after his paratroops had secured the area? And is Jerusalem "the eternal undivided capital of Israel," as Israel's political leaders declare? Or is the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount and other areas in the eastern part of the city tenuous and restricted?
And is the political redivision of Jerusalem inevitable?
Like many intense Israeli political debates, this one is often presented in a simplistic and polarized form. The events of 1967 and the liberation of Jerusalem meant, first and foremost, that the siege that began with the invasion of 1948 was lifted. For almost two decades after the Arab Legion captured the Old City and expelled its remaining Jews, the armistice agreement guaranteeing free access to religious sites had been ignored.
Jews – not only Israelis – stood along the cease-fire lines and looked across; they could not pray at the Western Wall. While the United Nations and the Vatican stood by, dozens of ancient synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were desecrated and gravestones vandalized for building roads and Jordanian army camps. In this atmosphere, the sudden removal of the barriers, the reopening of the Old City and the restoration of the Jewish Quarter were singular historical moments.
But the Israeli government moved immediately to ensure freedom of access and worship to Muslims and Christians. There would be no continuation of the ancient practice of destroying the monuments of Jerusalem's previous conquerors. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the removal of the Israeli flag that had been placed atop the Dome of the Rock in order to avoid a direct challenge to Islamic sensitivities.
At the same time, rabbis from all Orthodox groups immediately found a basis for prohibiting religious Jews from entering the Temple Mount area, which further limited friction. And the Israel Police, backed by the courts, prevented Third Temple enthusiasts from pre-empting the Messiah. Thus, the theme set by Israel in 1967 following the war and reunification of Jerusalem was one of realism and compromise.
This approach, however, stands in sharp contrast to the Arab and Islamic efforts to claim exclusivity in Jerusalem. This absolute demand is repeated and reflected in the constant references to "Arab," "Islamic" or "Palestinian Jerusalem," without any recognition of its Jewish foundations.
It was this blanket rejection of Jewish rights that blocked any serious negotiations of Jerusalem's status following the 1993 Oslo agreement. Seven years later, at the July 2000 Camp David summit meeting, Arafat tried to convince president Bill Clinton that the two Jewish Temples had been in Nablus.
This outburst surprised the Americans committed to the "peace process," but there was nothing new in the declaration. For Palestinian and Muslim leaders, recognition of the Jewish history of the city would also require the acceptance of equality for the Jewish people as a nation and religion; this remains anathema.
As a result, the reports of negotiations over a shared Jerusalem that took place after the Camp David summit are based on myths, or perhaps wishful thinking. In this framework, Israel must continue to ensure that the 1948 to 1967 scenario is not replayed.
The massive Islamic excavations on the Temple Mount, including the construction or expansion of mosques, caused immense destruction to the layers of Jewish history below. It also undermined Dayan's pragmatic and realistic balance.
From this perspective, the repeated declarations that Jerusalem is Israel's "eternal undivided capital" reflect the fear of a return to the exclusion that characterized the pre-1967 period.
Israeli housing developments around Jerusalem, including the planned extension of Ma'ale Adumim, are designed to avoid this black scenario. And these concerns also provided the background to Ariel Sharon's Temple Mount visit in September 2000, when he was head of the opposition and Israel's control over the Old City came close to being jeopardized by Ehud Barak's government.
Israel's goal, therefore, continues to be to ensure that Jerusalem remains open to members of all religions, including Jews. In this sense, the Temple Mount does remain in our hands. u
Gerald M. Steinberg directs the program on conflict management at Bar-Ilan University, and is the editor of www.ngo-monitor.org.