Israel Report

July 2001         

Arafat's Rewriting of History

By Gerald M. Steinberg - July 27, 2001
O ne thousand nine hundred and thirty-one years ago, the Jewish revolt against Rome was crushed, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the capital city of the second Jewish commonwealth fell.

Even for mighty Rome, this was a major achievement, and was commemorated by the minting of special coins with the words "Judeae Capta." The image stamped on the coin, of the broken Jew, crying under the palm tree, became the symbol of exile and dispersion.

Since then, on the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish people have mourned the loss of the Temple and of their sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Jews have always returned to the site of the Temple Mount and the remaining Western Wall to pray daily for the restoration of Jerusalem and return to the Land. In Jewish homes, a corner or wall was traditionally left unfinished, as a sign that their lives were incomplete without Jerusalem.

Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued, even during the most difficult of times. Between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan closed the Old City of Jerusalem in blatant violation of the armistice agreements, Jews gathered on Mount Zion. Since the 1967 Six-Day War, when the gates were reopened, the Western Wall plaza has filled with hundreds of thousands of Jews on Tisha Be'av and other occasions.

And yet, somehow, these reflections of over 3000 years of intense Jewish identification with Jerusalem have escaped the attention of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian and Arab leaders. One year ago, at the critical point in the Camp David summit, when the issue of Jerusalem was finally addressed, Arafat and his entourage demanded exclusive control of the Temple Mount area, and totally negated any Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

According to numerous witnesses, in the presence of then-US president Bill Clinton, and to the consternation of the Americans, Arafat simply denied the fundamental historical facts. According to Arafat's interpretation, which was repeated in many PLO publications and Internet sites, whatever Jewish temple "might have existed" was located in Nablus, the site of the Samaritan sanctuary. By this account, Jesus was never in Jerusalem. More worldly and experienced members of the Palestinian delegation, among them Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, repeated this myth until various "neutral" and accepted texts, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, were brought in and consulted.

This incident clearly demonstrated that the primary obstacle to peace and the success of the Oslo process was neither disagreement over technical formulae for compromise, nor allegations regarding Ehud Barak's "take it or leave it" negotiating style. Revisionists and defenders of Arafat, such Robert Malley, who served in the US National Security Council under Clinton, are entirely off-base in their explanations and efforts to shift the blame to Israel.

At the most fundamental level, the peace process failed because for Arafat, as well as for many other Palestinian, Arab and Islamic leaders, the Jewish religious, historic, and cultural core of Israel remains invisible. The masses of Jews who gather to mourn for Jerusalem every year on Tisha Be'av have been expunged from the picture. Like blacks in the US before the civil rights movement, or in South Africa under apartheid, Israeli Jews and our connection to this land are erased from the environment.

In contrast with the popular tendency to describe and explain the conflict in carefully balanced and even-handed terms - one of the major weaknesses of the Mitchell Report - in this key dimension, there is no symmetry. The Israeli consensus has shifted significantly over the past decades, and is very sympathetic to Palestinian views and the Palestinian desire for a state. Last year, at Camp David, the Israeli leadership was prepared to make fundamental and very painful compromises, based on the understanding that both peoples have deep historical and religious attachments to this land. However, this readiness for compromise was not reciprocated, and Arafat again chose the path of rejection, violence and terrorism.

In Arafat's distorted world, the acceptance of Jewish claims and history, in any form, would undermine Palestinian and Arab claims to primacy in Israel and Jerusalem. As a result, the dominant myths remain exclusivist and uncompromising, fostering a mythological history of Jerusalem that starts with the Islamic conquest 1400 years ago. Ignoring the reality of Jewish history, they have created a myth equating Zionism with the Crusader episode, and still expect the Jews to return to the Diaspora. The Islamic Authority's secret construction and stone-cutting activities on the Temple Mount also seem designed to prevent the discovery of more ancient Jewish artifacts. In the eight years that have elapsed since the Oslo Accords, the total rejection of Jewish links to the land has changed not at all.

Following the failure of Camp David and the Palestinian campaign of violence and terror that followed, attention has shifted to efforts to salvage the failed Oslo process, and marginal issues such the number of CIA officers to monitor a non-existent cease-fire. It would be better for would-be peacemakers to focus their energies on developing the basis for tolerance, compromise, and mutual acceptance. As long as Palestinian and Arab leaders and intellectuals continue their desperate efforts to rewrite Jewish tradition, culture, and history while the reality of the Jewish presence remains invisible, peace is only a distant hope.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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