Did you know that the city of Jerusalem is lining up to be the single-most challenging foreign policy issue of our time? How remarkable considering that this city has none of the ingredients of greatness: a population of only 800,000, not located on major roads, without major waterways, ports, or resources. Yet it is not just the most difficult issue of past, present, and future peace negotiations, but those entities that have a say in the Jerusalem issue are broader than you can imagine.
For nearly one hundred years the world has had to contemplate ‘The Jerusalem Question.’ Simply put, who is the undisputed, internationally recognized owner of the Holy City? The last recognized holder of Jerusalem was the Ottoman Empire, which held the city for exactly 400 years. They lost it to the British in December 1917 and then the empire itself fell apart in 1923. Since then, there has been no consensus on who the final owner should be, even though there have been no less than five dozens proposals to solve the Jerusalem issue.
Why is this the status of this city so difficult to resolve. For starters, it does not merely involve the Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem has other powerful stakeholders, including the United Nations, the European Union, the Vatican, Russia, the United States, the Orthodox Church, and the Muslim world under the OIC. All these entities have a finger in the ‘Jerusalem pie’ and any one of them can wield a veto to knock a settlement off the board. Add to this list 4,000 years of turbulent history, with a variety of owners, and also several theologies, too.
For a short time, it appeared that there might be a resolution of this issue, however temporary. In November 1947, the young United Nations voted to partition British-mandatory Palestine into an Arab state and Jewish state. This was called the UN Partition Resolution 181. As for Jerusalem, it was to become a corpus separatum or international city under UN supervision. This status would remain for about 10 years, after which a referendum was to be held to see which way the inhabitants wanted to go.
So what happened to Resolution 181 and the international status of Jerusalem? The Jewish community accepted the resolution, but the Arabs rejected it totally. Once the British withdrew, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war began. Both sides sought to capture and defend their interest in Jerusalem. The result was that the Israeli forces captured the western sector or New City while the Jordanian Arab Legion captured the historic Old City and the Mount of Olives. The United Nations, the proposed guardian and supervisor of the international city, was no where to be found.
Once an armistice was signed between Israel and Jordan, the UN asked for the keys to the city. Both sides said ‘No.’ From their point-of-view, why should they hand over their sector of the city, with which was paid for in the spilt blood of their soldiers and civilians, to an entity which did not lift a finger in its defense? So Jerusalem, the attractive, updated British mandatory capital was divided between two hostile countries. Barbed-wire, no-man’s land, mine fields, and sniper fire became part of life in the divided city. Apart from tourists, diplomats, and Israeli Christians, no one could cross from one side of the city to the other.
The June 1967 war changed the face of Jerusalem. The Old City and Mount of Olives were captured by the victorious Israel Defense forces and the city was reunited. At the end of June, 1967, Israel annexed the eastern sector, declared the entire city to be the indivisible, eternal capital of the State of Israel, and coined the phrase ‘Jerusalem is not negotiable.’ It would not be on the negotiating table in any future peace talks with the Arabs.
While there was no question in Israel’s mind that Jerusalem was to remain in its possession, the rest of the world had other ideas. Foreign embassies refused to locate in Jerusalem, preferring to be based in Tel Aviv 65 kilometers away. Passports of western citizens born in the Holy City would merely have ‘Jerusalem’ as their place of birth. In essence, it became a city without a country. The world community said that the status of Jerusalem was not settled in June 1967; it must be decided as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Arabs.
The fact is that a battle, not negotiations, is what is brewing ahead for Jerusalem. Make no mistake about it – Jerusalem is and will continue to be the single-most important foreign policy issue, bar none.
For over ninety years, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the international question has been ‘Who will own Jerusalem?’ This is known as the ‘Jerusalem Question.’ There have been five dozen proposals over the years but one or more of the many parties who have a stake in the Jerusalem Question have said ‘No.’ These interested parties include Israel, Palestine, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Vatican, the European Union, the United Nations, Russia, and the Orthodox Church. With so many stakeholders, 4,000 years of history, and different theologies, no wonder the question of Jerusalem is so difficult to solve.
The Battle for Jerusalem does not mean that guns are fired and bodies fall everyday, 24/7. No, the battle happens daily but at several levels: political, cultural, theological, spiritual, and physical. The spiritual battle is on-going and intensifying; its the daily one. Physical battles have been many throughout Jerusalem’s long 4,000 years of history. The last full-on battle was in June 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces captured the Old City and the Mount of Olives from the Jordanian. Low-level battles include riots and two Palestinian uprisings, otherwise known as intifadas. The second intifada was exceptionally violent, with regular suicide bombings. Even recently, with the Gaza War (known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge) and the murder of a Palestinian teenager after the murder of three Jewish teenagers, there has been more spot-rioting.
We look now at a most unlikely battlefield: it is what we can call ‘inter-Jewish.’ While the Israel Jewish community are mostly agreed that Jerusalem should remain united under Israeli rule, there is also a schism among those Jews who live in Jerusalem.
The current population of Jerusalem proper stands at 815,000 people. Of this number, 301,000 are Arab and 500,000 are Jewish (other is around 14,000 are other). Of the Jewish population, 51% are Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and the rest are secular/Orthodox. The growth in Haredi numbers can be attributed to a higher birth rate and emigration of secular Jews.
Why are secular Jews emigrating from Jerusalem? Various reasons, but one is that Jerusalem is a religious city and its night life can be dull compared to rocking, bopping Tel Aviv 65 kilometers down the road. There is also little to do on the Sabbath, because religious Jews want to keep theatres and restaurants closed and cars off the streets. The Sheruber Complex in Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighbor on the former Jordanian border, is offering Sabbath day entertainment. Though life between Jerusalem Arab and Jews can be mostly calm, there are times when things flare up and this may also make some secular Jews look for calmer pastures. Secularists are probably tired of the two battles they face: Arab vs. Jew and Jew vs. Haredi. That’s why they are leaving.
If, in the future, should there be increased tension between secular and Haredi Jews, like closing businesses and prohibiting cars on the Sabbath, or drafting religious Jews into the army, Jerusalem would be the fault-line. Furthermore, some (no one knows the amount) of Haredi do not believe that the State of Israel has a right to exist. In their mind, only Messiah can create a Jewish state and anything created by man is a fraud. This could make interesting bedfellows between anti-Zionist Jews and their anti-Zionist Arab neighbors.
In all likelihood, despite the chasm like differences between Haredi and non-Haredi Jerusalem Jews, external challenges may force them into an uneasy coalition as the battle for Jerusalem increases in intensity.