Key Facts

  • While home to sites significant to three faiths, Jerusalem is the central spiritual space of the Jewish people and has historically served as capital city only of the Jews.
  • Even in times of exile, Jews maintained a physical connection to Jerusalem.
  • When taking control of Jerusalem following the Six-Day War, the Israeli government vowed that all citizens’ rights would be protected, all religious sites preserved, and the city would not be divided again.
  • Despite security and Israeli determination to provide peace and good government to all site, religious sites have often been locations of violence.
  • Israel’s efforts to improve Arab sections of Jerusalem are often ignored by the international community.
  • Since the Oslo Accords of September 1993, successive Israeli governments have agreed to discuss Jerusalem’s status in the framework of final status peace talks with the Palestinians but have been met with rejectionist claims to the documented historic links of the Jewish people to the City of Jerusalem.
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While specific locations in the city, such as the al-Haram al-Sharif and the Via Dolorosa, have significance to Muslims and Christians respectively, Jerusalem – Mount Zion, the City of David, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall – have religious centrality only for Jews.  As respected historian Martin Gilbert has noted, for the Jews Jerusalem is not merely a city: “It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people.”

In its more than 3,000-year history, Jerusalem has been the political capital of only the Jewish nation, beginning in 1004 BCE, when King David declared Jerusalem the capital of the first Jewish Kingdom.  In the words of the city’s former mayor, Teddy Kollek:

Jerusalem was never the capital of any empire or country or conqueror, despite the many rulers who passed through the city; only the Jews declared it their capital.  Throughout the more than 12 centuries that Muslims controlled Jerusalem, they did not declare it to be their capital, or even an administrative centre.

A remarkable chain of attachment, of historical longing, links the Jewish people today with the city of Jerusalem.  Following the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BC, the Jews returned 50 years later and rebuilt Jerusalem as their capital.  The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE marked the end of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem but, for the next 2,000 years, Jews – facing toward their holy city – prayed for the restoration of Jerusalem three times a day.  The “return to Zion” is central in Jewish liturgy and the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” is the concluding hope of the Passover Seder.

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Even during their exile, Jews managed to maintain not only a spiritual but also a physical attachment to Jerusalem, with communities of devout Jews maintaining a presence in the city despite periods of persecution and poverty.  By the middle of the 19th century, 50 years before the foundation of modern political Zionism, Jews constituted a majority of the city’s population.  By 1914, under Turkish Muslim rule, there were some 45,000 Jews in Jerusalem out of a total population of 65,000.  At the time of statehood in 1948, there were 100,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem and 65,000 Arabs.

In November 1947, the Zionist movement (under the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Palestine) accepted the United Nations Assembly plan (Resolution 181) for a division of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, including (reluctantly) the plan to treat Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, an international city, for an initial ten-year period.  However, Palestinian leadership and the Arab states rejected the incipient Jewish State.  In the course of hostilities, David Ben-Gurion and the Haganah military command took the vexing decision to evacuate the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City and other Jewish neighbourhoods in the eastern part of Jerusalem lest they be annihilated by Jordan’s Arab Legion.  Thousands of Jews, whose families had lived in the Old City and eastern Jerusalem for centuries, were driven into exile by the invading Jordanians.

The violent rejection by the Arabs of Resolution 181 rendered it null and void in the eyes of Israelis, including Ben-Gurion, who declared that Israel would no longer accept that Jerusalem become an international city, a proposal restated in UN Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948.

Over the three millennia of its existence, only during Jordan’s 19-year occupation (from 1948-1967) was Jerusalem physically divided.  In violation of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement of April 1949, Jordan prevented Jews from praying at their places in the Old City and Christians from their religious sites in Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Synagogues and cemeteries were desecrated and destroyed, as the Jordanians tried to eradicate all evidence of the ancient Jewish presence in the Old City.

When the Israelis finally reunified Jerusalem, in the context of the June 1967 Six-Day War, they vowed that it would never be divided again.  Steps were taken to apply Israeli law over the unified city, which was declared “the eternal capital of the “Jewish state.” The Jewish Quarter was rebuilt and neighbourhoods of eastern Jerusalem owned and dominated by Jews prior to 1948 were re-established and modernized.

As it affirmed sovereignty over the unified city, Israel undertook measures to safeguard the rights of all Jerusalem’s citizens, including free access to the holy places of all faiths.  In deference to Muslim sensitivities, at the conclusion of the Six-Day War, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the lowering of the Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock and Israeli soldiers were forbidden to set foot on the Temple Mount (despite the centrality of the Mount in Judaism).  While maintaining responsibility for security, Israel placed the management of Muslim and Christian holy places in the hands of their respective religious authorities (including the Jordanian-appointed Islamic holy trust, the Waqf.)

On July 20, 1980, the Knesset adopted the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital City of Israel, which declared inter alia, that:

Jerusalem united in its entirety is the capital of Israel.  Jerusalem is the seat of the President of the State, the Knesset, the Government and the Supreme Court.  The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.

The Basic Law also stipulated that the Government would work for the development and prosperity of the city and the welfare of its inhabitants and would give special priority to this activity.

The wording of the Basic Law: Jerusalem encapsulates Israel’s policy toward the city in the period following the 1967 War: both a reaffirmation of Israel’s sovereign control over the reunified city and a commitment to ensure free and open access to the holy places of all faiths (denied to Jews between 1948-1967), combined with a determination to provide peace, order and good government for all the city’s inhabitants.

Despite Israel’s best efforts, Jerusalem’s holy places were the arena of frequent violent confrontations – often beginning with Palestinians on the Temple Mount compound throwing stones and other dangerous objects upon Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below.  As in many similar circumstances, international criticism of such incidents often focused on Israeli reaction, ignoring Palestinian violent provocation.  Successive Israeli governments also complained bitterly about the international community’s failure to appreciate the meaningful efforts the country was making to improve the quality of municipal services available to Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods, despite the lack of cooperation of the Arab residents of those areas.  Indeed, few of the steps taken by Israel to maintain a degree of normalcy in unified Jerusalem since 1967 were acknowledged by the Palestinians and their supporters, who seemingly preferred to use the “Jerusalem card” as a political weapon against Israel.

The question of Jerusalem’s status was raised in the context of the Camp David negotiations involving Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (1977-1979).  However, the two leaders, along with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, were in the end forced to “agree to disagree” on its ultimate resolution.  (Indeed, it was in reaction to pressure from Sadat and Carter for what Israelis considered to be unreasonable concessions concerning the city, and in order to shore up domestic support for the peace treaty with Egypt, that the Begin government introduced the Basic Law: Jerusalem, in July 1980.)

The Jerusalem issue was a key element of the Madrid / Oslo process that evolved in the wake of the Persian Gulf War (1991).  In significant diplomatic concessions, Israel agreed to permit Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem to participate in the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, with which Israel undertook bilateral negotiations after the Madrid Peace Conference (1991), and then agreed to have Arab Jerusalemites participate in the election of the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 1996.  Israel dedicated millions of dollars to upgrading municipal services in the city’s Arab neighbourhoods, and ideas were formulated to facilitate increased representation of Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem’s municipal political affairs. (This trend continues despite the rejection by the vast majority of Arab Jerusalemites of Israeli citizenship available to them since 1967 and the admission by many in public opinion surveys that they do not want to be governed by the PA and prefer instead to live under the Israeli governance).

The Oslo Accords deferred discussion about Jerusalem until permanent-status negotiations and restricted Palestinian Authority political and diplomatic activities to areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip transferred to Palestinian control.  Israel from the outset made very clear its rejection of any plan that entailed “re-dividing” the city or having Jerusalem serve as the capital of both Israel and a proposed West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state.  According to Menachem Klein of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies:

It is now impossible to return to the reality that prevailed [in Jerusalem] before the 1967 Six-Day War.  The principle of non-partition of Jerusalem by means of border barriers has become part of the international consensus and is also accepted by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

At the same time, while setting continued Israeli political sovereignty over the unified city as a sine qua non for peace, Israel has remained open to plans to accord greater respect to the Muslim and Christian religious and cultural attachments to Jerusalem.  In the words of former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres: Jerusalem “is closed politically but open religiously.”  Teddy Kollek had also written:

Knowing that two capitals cannot co-exist in Jerusalem [and so] denying Palestinian [political] claims to Jerusalem, does not imply denial of their rights as a people.

Since the Oslo Accords of September 1993, successive Israeli governments have agreed to discuss Jerusalem’s status in the framework of final status peace talks with the Palestinians.  Accordingly, at the Camp David summit in July 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made generous proposals to the Palestinians aimed at securing a peace agreement, including an “end to the conflict.”  He offered to cede sovereignty to the Palestinians in neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem that are predominantly Arab and to enhance Palestinian control in certain sections of the Old City (with a secure corridor connecting it to the Arab neighbourhoods in eastern Jerusalem and nearby villages).  In return, Israel would retain sovereign control over the Old City; most Jewish neighbourhoods constructed (or re-constructed) since 1967 would be recognized as permanent parts of “Jewish” Jerusalem; and communities encircling Jerusalem, such as Ma’ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, would be incorporated into the city.

In subsequent “bridging ideas,” U.S. President Bill Clinton suggested dividing the Old City along religious lines and sharing sovereignty over the Temple Mount, with Palestinians controlling Islamic institutions on the Temple Mount and Israel retaining sovereignty over the Western Wall and areas beneath the Temple Mount, where the remains of the first and second Temples are believed to be buried.  Despite strong domestic and international Jewish opposition, Barak gave conditional approval to this plan.

Arafat rejected these unprecedented offers, which were shocking to many Israelis. By demanding exclusive Palestinian / Islamic sovereignty over the Old City, and by refusing to recognize any Jewish historical and religious attachment to any part of Jerusalem, Arafat signalled to Israel and all Jews that rejected any Jewish claims to the city and, by extension, to the land of Israel.

During the 2008 Annapolis peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented an even more concessive proposal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In an effort to resolve disputes over holy sites in Jerusalem, the Holy Basin area would be without sovereignty, administered by a joint committee of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. This would have amounted to Israel’s absolute ceding of sovereignty over Jewish holy sites including the Temple Mount and Mount of Olives. Abbas did not respond, calling into question what, if any, compromise formula would be agreeable to the Palestinians short of their maximalist demands.

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