Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are on the verge of breaking down yet again.
One of the thorniest issues involves the fate of Jerusalem. As in so many international issues, there is more emotion and misinformation than facts in the discourse over the problem. That’s not surprising, considering that it is a site of extraordinary importance to three of the world’s major religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Both Jews and Arabs claim biologic ancestry going back to the beginning of the site’s existence.
Archaeologists believe the area was first settled in the 4th millennium B.C. near the local Gihon stream. Fortified walls first appeared in the 18th century B.C., and difficult relations with neighboring nations are indicated by Egyptian “Execration” texts, which reveal that Egypt was hostile to the city.
From 586 B.C. onward Jerusalem, although at times quite prosperous, was subjected to numerous invasions. According to published sources, Jerusalem has been totally destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured 44 times.
Most famously, of course, was the Roman invasion. Rebellions against the rule of the Caesar’s resulted in the burning of the old city in 70 A.D. During the Byzantine period, Christianity had a heavy influence, until Muslims invaded in the 7th century. They were ousted by Crusaders four centuries later in the 11th century, who were ousted by the Arabs in the 12th century. In the 15th century, Jerusalem was taken by the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated by the Allies in World War One. After that, it was ruled as a British mandate.
Following the declaration of Israel’s independence in 1948, the city was divided between Israel and Jordan. (The United Nations General Assembly sought to establish the city as a separate entity under its own control.) The division lasted until the conclusion of the 1967 war, when a victorious Israel was able to occupy the entire site.
Neither side has been particularly eager to compromise, and so the issue appears intractable. Delving through its voluminous history, however, several facts do stand out.
Of the three religions that lay claim to the site, Muslims appear to have the weakest link. The city has been central to Judaism essentially for as long as there has been a Jewish identity, with architectural and archeological evidence of it being the key center of worship. Christ was crucified there, making it the linchpin of Christianity. The Prophet Mohammed never physically visited the City, but is said to have arisen to heaven from there. Muslims rank both Mecca and Medina higher as religious sites. In terms of tolerance, the period of Israeli control has been more tolerant than that which occurred under Jordan.
A similar comparison may be made in terms of being a national capital. While Jerusalem has served as a capital city for Israel whenever Israel was independent, there is no substantial evidence that it has served as either a national or provincial capital for any Arab state.
But over the past decades, Palestinians have made keeping at least a portion of Jerusalem a key part of their demands, and most international organizations, including the United Nations, have been generally supportive. The United States has not recognized Israel’s claim of Jerusalem as its national capital. Therefore, the relative historical weakness of the Palestinian claims has not played a significant role.
It is quite possible that external factors, including both international organizations and individual countries other than the two parties involved, may be rendering negotiations more, rather than less, difficult. The casting of Jerusalem as a prize, a point of prestige in the eyes of the world, makes a settlement based on facts and practicality a secondary consideration.