A response to former prime minister Ehud Olmert from a former Israeli ambassador to the UN. Today, he says, Israel must reestablish that red line.
The UN planned to press its case for internationalization. Its grounds were General Assembly Resolution 181, adopted in 1947 and known as the partition plan, which not only advocated the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in former British Mandatory Palestine, but also recommended putting Jerusalem under UN control as a corpus separatum, or separate entity.
True, the resolution was not legally binding; it had been forcibly rejected by the Arab states. Moreover, the UN never established the special regime for Jerusalem that it proposed. In fact, it failed to dispatch any forces to save the Old City when reports streamed in that its ancient synagogues were being systematically destroyed. Nevertheless, even after the war ended, leading diplomatic players in the UN, including the US government, came back and insisted on resurrecting the idea of international control.
Ben-Gurion stood in the Knesset on December 5, 1949 and, in no uncertain terms, rejected the demand for internationalization. He looked back at what had happened during the War of Independence, explaining that the UN “did not lift a finger” when invading Arab armies tried to destroy the holy city. It was only because of the efforts of the newly created IDF that the siege of Jerusalem had been lifted and the rest of its Jewish population saved. Ben-Gurion declared that Israel no longer viewed Resolution 181 as having any further “moral force” with regard to Jerusalem.
Four days later the General Assembly responded, again insisting that Jerusalem “should be placed under a permanent international regime.”
Ben-Gurion nonetheless stood his ground and declared on December 13, 1949 that the Knesset and the rest of the government would be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
LOOKING BACK 60 years, internationalization was a complete failure. And yet it now appears it is coming back.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert has put forward a proposal in this paper (“The terms for an accord,” September 24) for the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, in which this area will be overseen by “an international trusteeship.”
According to Olmert, Israel would be expected to renounce its sovereignty over the holiest sites of the Jewish people, like the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, located in an area called “the Holy Basin” by negotiators in the past, and which extends beyond the Old City to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
How is it that an idea which spelled disaster to the country’s founders can suddenly be put back on the political agenda? What happened? Does this readiness come from a sense that with the reunification of Jerusalem as a result of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has less right to sovereignty there than it did in 1949? Such a view has no basis.
The Jewish people had restored their majority in the Old City already in 1863, according to the British consulate at the time – well before any other place in modern Israel. And after 1967, international lawyers such as like Stephen Schwebel, who would become president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, pointed to the fact that while Jordan occupied east Jerusalem after a war of aggression in 1948, Israel captured the very same areas in a war of self-defense, and as a result its title was stronger than that of other claimants at the time.
Moreover, by its actions since 1967, Israel has proven that it was the first protector of Jerusalem to truly defend the interests of all three monotheistic faiths.
Perhaps some of its political elites have forgotten what was axiomatic for Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog, but that does not diminish its historical rights.
It could be that today there is a naive belief that internationalization might work, since the UN in 2010 will be better than the UN in 1948. But there is no basis for such a conclusion. In the past 20 years, international oversight of areas of conflict has ended with one disaster after another. In 1994, a UN force in Rwanda, made up of mostly Belgian paratroopers deployed to oversee implementation of the Arusha Peace Accord, withdrew and abandoned the Tutsi tribe to acts of genocide by Hutu supremists. The UN Security Council delayed any effective action to stop the killing, which resulted in 800,000 deaths.
A year later, UN peacekeepers in Bosnia abandoned the Muslims they were supposed to protect in the town of Srebrenica. As a result, the Bosnian Serb army slaughtered more than 8,000 innocent people.
Since 2003, the UN has been unable to take decisive action and put an end to the genocide in Darfur by the Sudanese regime, given the interests of the Arab states and the Chinese. Multilateral machinery, whether based on the UN or on a consortium of states, remains notoriously slow.
In short, there is no recent international development that might lead one to believe that “an international trust,” rather than Israel, might actually work and protect Jerusalem.
How is it possible to explain the difference between Ben-Gurion and the leaders who put forward from time to time the idea of internationalization? Israel at the time of Ben-Gurion was actually much weaker than it is today; its population in 1948 was a little more than 800,000. But it had something which unfortunately has been lacking in many who would renounce its sovereignty over the Old City: Israel in 1948 had a deep conviction in the justice of its cause – a rare commodity today in many influential circles.
Those putting forward the idea of internationalization are completely divorced from the sentiments of the people. Poll after poll in the past decade indicate that Israelis are not prepared to concede Jerusalem, and especially the holy sites of the Jewish people.
The problem is that when one of Israel’s leaders suggests that the Old City be put under an international regime, international diplomats begin to think the government may entertain such proposals. Ben-Gurion was able to stand up to the UN General Assembly in 1949 because the world understood that Jerusalem represented a red line from which neither he nor any other representative of Israel was prepared to retreat.
The writer served as ambassador to the United Nations between 1997 and 1999 and as foreign polcicy advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his first term. He is the author of The Fight for Jerusalem (Regnery: 2007).