"Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided," the Israeli prime minister said in late May 2009, words no less incendiary than Ariel Sharon's provocative, soldier-thick march on the Temple Mount in 2000, which triggered the second intifada. Ironically, Sharon staged that march when he was locked in a struggle for leadership of the Likud Party with none other than Benjamin Netanyahu.
Who Owns the Temple Mount?
That latest stunt of Netanyahu's didn't go over well with Palestinians, who hours earlier had heard Netanyahu repeat that he was ready to start peace negotiations without preconditions. Israel occupied the Palestinian portion of East Jerusalem in 1967. Palestinians would like it back as part of a final settlement. (In 1967, East Jerusalem was part of Jordan, but Jordan's claim on what is today the West Bank was itself a post-colonial construct that was designed to deny the Palestinians their own land.)
Not only that, but on May 20, 2009, the Palestinian Authority said it would accept a plan to cede the management of the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount to the Saudi-based, 57-country Organization of Islamic Conference.
So why Netanyahu's inflaming words? And not just Netanyahu's, but Israeli President Shimon Peres', too: "Israel will never have another capital other than Jerusalem, and Jerusalem will never be the capital of another people," Peres said at the same ceremony. Few countries, incidentally, recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The United States is not among those few. The American embassy is in Tel Aviv.)
What Is "Jerusalem Day"?
"Jerusalem Day" is itself an in-your-face recurrence of that flag-planting atop the Dome of the Rock in 1967, "a festival of cliched slogans – such as 'the united capital of Israel for all eternity,'" as a Haaretz editorial put it.
Unless they're tinpot dictatorships looking for validation, modern nations these days don't usually celebrate outright conquest and occupation. Especially not the sort of conquest and occupation the United Nations terms illegal. Israel isn't a tinpot dictatorship, but since its conquest and occupation of Arab Jerusalem in 1967 (when an officer had planted the Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third holiest site in the world), what Israelis call Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, has been a national holiday, an occasion for a little breast-beating, a lot of flag-waving, and the requisite speeches by the country's biggest wigs.
Khomeini's "Jerusalem Day"
Not to be outdone, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, soon after replacing the shah of Iran (same throne, different gluteus), declared his own "Jerusalem Day," or Al Quds Day (Al Quds being the Arabic for Jerusalem), set for every last Friday of Ramadan, when people are encouraged to protest against the "bloodthirsty Zionist state." The "holiday" has since metastasized across the Middle East (at least wherever two or more Shiites are gathered in Israel's destruction's name). The ugliness of "Jerusalem Days," in other words, is mutual, no matter who marks it.
Reality of Arab Jerusalem Under Israeli Rule
Misplaced nostalgia for 1967 aside, Israelis have little to be proud of, considering what they've made of their expanded Jerusalem. "From year to year, the gap between the flowery words of the politicians and the sad reality in the divided city widens. The day after the festival, officials return to supporting discrimination against the Palestinian minority, who make up a third of the city's population," Haaretz editorializes. The paper goes on:
Forty-two years after Israel declared that Jerusalem had been reunited, it is simple to draw a clear line between the two peoples who have been compelled to live under one national and municipal roof. According to data gathered by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, two-thirds of the Palestinians in the city live below the poverty line; more than one-third of their lands have been expropriated since 1967; since there are no approved plans, 160,000 of them are living in homes that were built without permits, and can expect demolition and eviction orders; tens of thousands live without proper sewage systems or regular water supplies; their sanitation conditions are inferior; and there are too few social workers to care for them and too many Border Policemen.More importantly, there's simply no point talking peace if Israel isn't ready to cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and acknowledge that it will (it should) never have sovereignty over places like the Dome of the Rock. "Unless the Muslim world is made a partner to sovereignty on the Temple Mount," Haaretz concludes, "there is no point in discussing normal relations between Israel and its neighbors."
Half of the Palestinian children of school-going age do not have a place in the state educational system, and some 9,000 of them do not receive any education at all.
And the Netanyahu-Peres breast-beating on Jerusalem Day is yet more poor taste, inflammatory theater in the midst of the briefest of seasons of hope for the breakthrough.