Netanyahu’s extremist mistake
June 6, 2011
THE MOST astounding aspect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pronouncements in Washington last month was not his resounding “no!” to the Palestinians, or even his discourtesies to President Obama. It was his repudiation of mainstream thinking in his own country, especially about Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s utter dismissal of any Palestinian claim on the city is a radical shift away from an Israeli political consensus that has emerged over the last two decades. His insistence that Jerusalem will be eternally “undivided” ignores the movement that had been made away from the idea of “division” — as if any one wants a return to the era when barbed wire sliced through Jerusalem’s heart — to the idea of a city “shared,” with each party able to satisfy an ancient longing.
Until recently, Israeli leaders steadily signaled openness to a compromise that would give a Palestinian authority control over Muslim and Arab sections of the city, with equivalent authority over Jewish areas remaining with Israel. Structures of cooperation for overlapping municipal administration and economic activity were to be worked out.
When proposed as part of a comprehensive settlement of all issues, the idea of East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state drew solid majorities of support among Israelis. Just as they had come to embrace the hope of a “two-state solution,” they understood that Jerusalem would necessarily be the capital of both states. Negotiations never reached defined details for Israeli-Palestinian sharing of Jerusalem, including the possible participation of other nations, but the principle had taken hold. So had the spirit of compromise — the spirit Netanyahu now wants to snuff out.
The Jewish attachment to Jerusalem is well known in the West (“Next year in Jerusalem”), and the return of Jews to the ancient homeland is a sacred reversal of an ancient Christian denigration that saw permanent exile as God’s punishment for Jews. The 1967 recovery of the Western Wall, which occurred 44 years ago last week, embodies that reversal.
In that very event, Israelis displayed a visceral understanding of Arab attachment to the holy city — a source of cohesion that had sustained Arab identity through centuries of Turkish and British rule. When conquering Israeli soldiers overran the Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Temple Mount, a leading rabbi insisted on the immediate destruction of the Islamic mosque, “so that we may rid ourselves of it once and for all.” This was not primarily a matter of restoring the Jewish Temple to the plateau, but of obliterating the 1,300-year-old source of Muslim connection to Jerusalem. Major General Uzi Narkiss, the Israeli commander, ordered the rabbi to stop his agitation, but he refused. Finally, the general said, “Rabbi, if you don’t stop, I’ll take you to jail.”
From then on, Israelis protected the Islamic character of the Noble Sanctuary — a practical recognition of the deep tie Muslims have to the very pulse of Jerusalem’s being. That recognition has naturally led Israelis to the affirmation of some kind of yet-to-be defined Arab political autonomy in the holy city, with Palestinians themselves recognizing both that other Muslim peoples are invested in the Noble Sanctuary, and that Palestinian Christians have their version of this ancient tie to Jerusalem, too.
All of this will be overturned if Netanyahu gets his way. He represents an extremist impulse, which shows up in the steady expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Arabs are being dispossessed and harassed, not only by mobs but by right-wing government functionaries. But voices of the Israeli mainstream have been loudly raised in defense of Palestinian claims — notably in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods.
Before Congress, Netanyahu proclaimed his readiness for “painful compromises.” But by explicitly leaving Jerusalem out of that promise, he laid bare its hollowness. He threw in with Republicans catering to right-wing Christian Zionists, whose interest in an all-Jewish Jerusalem (and whose crackpot urge to restore the Jewish Temple) lies in bringing about a Christian vindication over Jews and Muslims both.
Netanyahu kept congressional backing. But this temporary advantage hides a great loss for his country. It is troubling enough that he dismissed his own nation’s precious political achievement — Jerusalem in a zone of compromise — but he did so by aligning himself with the ultimate in anti-Judaism.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.