Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Our hearts are in the East: a post-Annapolis reflection

Originally published 12/4/07, 12:11 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Posted with permission of the author Douglas Aronin.


"My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West." These well-known words of Yehuda Halevi, the medieval Jewish philosopher and poet, are an apt description of the pain of exile. Over the centuries, the identity of the West has changed -- as I sit in New York today, the Spain from which Yehuda Halevi wrote doesn't seem so far west anymore -- but the meaning of the East has remained constant. Jewish bodies may be in many places throughout the world, but the heart of the Jewish people is in Jerusalem.

There are places more distant from Jerusalem in geography, but in concept the farthest west last week was Annapolis, Maryland. There, on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy, representatives of Israel, the titular leadership of the Palestinian Authority, most Arab countries and an odd agglomeration of others (can someone explain to me what Senegal was doing there?) came together in a meeting/ summit/ conference/gathering (choose your own nomenclature -- the assembled representatives had trouble agreeing even on that) aimed at trying once again to find a viable foundation for real peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They didn't fail -- at least not yet -- but it requires a willful naiveté to call the results of their efforts a success. And one of the most important tactics that the participants at Annapolis used to avoid outright failure was to keep Jerusalem as far away from their minds, and especially their mouths, as possible.

Yes, I know. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solemnly agreed at Annapolis that Jerusalem would be one of the issues to be discussed in the course of final status negotiations, which they promised that they will try to complete by the end of 2008. But promising to talk about Jerusalem is one thing, and agreeing on what to do about it is something else entirely. So for those seeking to make their own naiveté contagious, an important task in the months ahead will be to promote widespread amnesia about Jerusalem -- not only about its significance to the Jewish people throughout history but also about its current status as an almost certainly insurmountable obstacle to a negotiated peace agreement.

Anyone listening to the torrent of words, official and otherwise, that have flowed since the Annapolis gathering ended, can surely see the beginning of that amnesia promotion project. Not only political leaders and their official and unofficial spokesmen, but also many luminaries of the punditocracy, have sought to frame the negotiating process ahead in a way that ignores or at least downplays the centrality of Jerusalem as an issue. One op-ed in last week's Forward, though of no great significance in its own right, so well exemplifies the tenacity of those promoting Jerusalem amnesia that it deserves a closer look.

The op-ed in question was written by Daniel Levy, who is identified as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation, and who served in some unspecified position in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy's piece takes as a starting point the fact that last week also marked the sixtieth anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of Resolution 181, which in 1947 sought to partition what was left of mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. As is well known, the Zionist leadership under David Ben Gurion, though far from happy with the contemplated borders of the proposed Jewish state, accepted the partition plan, but the Arabs preferred war.

Levy's op-ed takes note of the fact that the partition plan would have given Israel 55% of western Palestine while the Arabs would have received 45%. (He doesn't mention, of course, that eastern Palestine, which was originally part of the mandatory territory, had been separated out by the British in 1922 to create the Emirate of TransJordan, which today is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.) By contrast, a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines (including, he specifies, East Jerusalem, his only mention of Jerusalem in the entire piece) would give Israel 78% of that territory and the Palestinians only 22%.

From Levy's perspective, this plan appears to be a no-brainer. Is Israel really prepared to pay the price of continued conflict, he asks, "in order to edge the percentage we can call ours from 78% to, what, 80% or 81%?" To him, apparently, one acre is the same as another, whether in the Negev or on Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount). Jerusalem? What's Jerusalem?

It's precisely because they understand that amnesia is Jerusalem's enemy that a group of organizations -- including several right-wing Zionist groups and much of the institutional Orthodox Jewish leadership, as well as one Christian organization -- have come together to create a coalition that they call the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem. Its purpose, according to its website, is " to use all educational, diplomatic, political and other legal means to ensure that Jerusalem remains intact, secure, undivided and under Jewish sovereignty." Apparently spearheaded by the Orthodox Union, by far the largest Orthodox organization in the US, the CCJ has called on the Israeli government to take the sovereignty of Jerusalem off the table.

The CCJ is not the only locus of concern about the status of Jerusalem. Agudath Israel, the primary institutional address of the chareidi community, has not joined that coalition, but its convention (coincidentally held less than a week before Annapolis) passed a resolution expressing concern about the possibility of ceding any part of the Holy City to Palestinian sovereignty. And Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, who was in the US to speak at the Agudath Israel convention, took advantage of his visit's timing to warn persistently about the danger of contemplating the redivision of Jerusalem.

Among the unreconstructed supporters of the "peace camp," the focus of attention on Jerusalem is unwelcome, to put it mildly. Steadfast peacenik Leonard Fein, in his weekly column in the Forward, attacks the CCJ's call to take Jerusalem off the table because "if Jerusalem were to be taken off the table there would be no negotiations at all." The Forward's editorial page makes its position on Jerusalem chillingly clear, stating that "when peace comes, Israel will have to make a deeply painful concession in Jerusalem, and the Palestinians will face an equally painful compromise on refugees." To the Forward, in other words, the ultimate peace deal would be for Israel to give up all claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem in return for the Palestinian concession that the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" will have to be limited to the new Palestinian state.

Is the Jewish future of Jerusalem really at risk? Unfortunately, the answer to that question may depend mostly on the Palestinians. If Abbas is able to take the interim steps required by the Roadmap, particularly serious steps against terrorism, and if the Palestinian leadership is willing and able to concede on the refugee issue, then Jerusalem would become the make-or-break issue, and the pressure on Olmert to give half the city to the Palestinians would be enormous. But given Abbas's political weakness, and with Hamas controlling Gaza, those two conditions will be tough ones for him to meet.

Back in 2000, when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak seemed desperate to give away the store, Palestinian terrorist-in-chief Yasir Arafat saved the day by storming out of Camp David instead of making a counter-offer. Abbas is nowhere near as popular among his people as Arafat was, but he may be more politically astute and thus better able to manipulate events to make Olmert seem like the bad guy when the negotiations break down, as they are likely to do. Jerusalem was so far down on Barak's list of priorities that he had to be briefed on the city's historical and religious significance. But one need not be a fan of Olmert (does he have any fans these days?) to recognize that he would have trouble even feigning Barak-level ignorance about Jerusalem; before becoming a minister in Ariel Sharon's government, after all, Olmert served for a decade as the city's mayor.

In an interview with the Jewish Week, Mayor Lupoliansky (who succeeded Olmert) acknowledged that Olmert's current intention is to limit concessions on Jerusalem to peripheral Arab neighborhoods like Abu Dis, many of which have been added to the municipality since 1967. But that doesn't give the mayor much comfort because he is "afraid about the influence of the world." If negotiations reach that point, he fears, the pressure on Olmert will be too great to resist.

He has a point. There are an awful lot of people out there -- including many whom we don't necessarily see as enemies -- who will automatically blame Israel for the failure to sign a peace treaty by the prescribed deadline, regardless of why the talks break down. Take New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example. (Please!) On Wednesday, the day after Annapolis, she wrote a column devoted to attacking the Bush administration for waiting so long to begin focusing on the Palestinians. In the middle of that column is this gem: "W. couldn't be bothered to stay in Annapolis and try to belatedly push things along and guide Israel with a firmer hand."

Guide Israel with a firmer hand? The negotiations haven't even started yet, but already Maureen Dowd "knows" that Israeli obstinacy will be the primary obstacle to be overcome. Never mind that the Palestinian Authority has failed to keep the commitments it made in Oslo. Never mind that it was Arafat who scuttled the proposed agreement in Camp David II. Never mind that Gaza is under the control of a group that doesn't even pretend a desire to live in peace with Israel. If peace is to come, Dowd and others of her ilk will tell you, it is Israel who must be pressured for more concessions.

On one level, unfortunately, she's right. Abbas can't make significant concessions and expect to live to the end of his presidential tenure. If anything resembling a peace agreement is to come out of this process, it will require Israel to pile one concession on top of another on virtually every disputed issue -- including, of course, Jerusalem.

So the amnesia promotion project has already begun. Not only the Palestinians and their Arab backers but supporters of the "peace process" in Europe, in the US and even in Israel itself want us to develop amnesia when it comes to Jerusalem. They want us to be so dazzled by the prospect of something that can be called, however tenuously, a "peace" agreement that we will forget both the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and the repeated proclamations of every Israeli government since 1967 that Jerusalem will never again be a divided city.

But we can't forget. Long ago, by the rivers of Babylon, our ancestors made a pledge that binds us still: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour." (Psalms 137:5-6, JPS translation)

Douglas Aronin

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