By SETH LIPSKY
In July of 1996, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu had acceded for the first time as leader of the Jewish State, he gave a speech to a Joint Meeting of the U.S. Congress. The speech ran to nearly an hour. The young prime minister, a free-market reformer from a country that had long suffered from socialist economic policies, was speaking to a Congress in which another free-market reformer, Newt Gingrich, had recently acceded as speaker.
So the mood was exceptionally warm, and the Israeli was interrupted by applause several times in the first 40 minutes. But the biggest applause came when Mr. Netanyahu turned to what he called "a subject that has been on your mind and ours, and that subject is the city of Jerusalem." He spoke of how, in his boyhood, he "knew that city, when it was divided into enemy camps, with coils of barbed wire stretched through its heart." Then he said:
"Since 1967, under Israeli sovereignty, united Jerusalem has, for the first time in 2,000 years, become the city of peace….For the first time, a single sovereign authority has afforded security and protection to members of every nationality who sought to come to pray there. There have been efforts to re-divide this city by those who claim that peace can come through division, that it can be secured through multiple sovereignties, multiple laws and multiple police forces. This is a groundless and dangerous assumption, which impels me to declare today: There will never be such a re-division of Jerusalem. Never. "
When he repeated the word "never," suddenly the whole chamber rose, on both sides of the aisle. The ovation lasted nearly a minute.
It would be imprudent to make too much of that applause. It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin himself who used to warn that it would be a mistake to try to settle the question of Jerusalem in the U.S. Congress. But it would also be imprudent to make too little of it, particularly as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu next week in Washington in an effort to patch up the extraordinary contretemps of the past week.
One of the reasons Congress leapt to its feet in that ovation for Mr. Netanyahu's declaration in 1996 is that it was by then becoming clear that the Middle East was at the start of what the Jewish Forward newspaper had already begun calling the Battle of Jerusalem.
It's been a long struggle. The phrase Battle of Jerusalem has also been used to describe General Allenby's taking of the city from the Turks in World War I. It was the first time Jerusalem came under what might be called Christian rule since the 12th century. The first time it was divided was after the partition of Palestine was voted by the United Nations in 1947 and the British mandate was brought to an end in 1948.
The U.S. at the time refused to recognize Israeli claims, even in the western party of the city, despite the fact that by the mid-19th century Jerusalem had already emerged with a Jewish majority. Instead the United Nations was advancing a scheme under which Jerusalem would become an international city, belonging to no country. The U.N.'s non-binding resolution on the matter was repudiated by Israel.
President Harry Truman waffled a bit, but eventually abandoned the internationalization idea. The division of the city lasted until 1967, when Jordan, which controlled the eastern sections and despoiled Jewish graves and other sacred sites, joined the attack against Israel, only to be driven out altogether. Israel then annexed the eastern part of the city, and the walls and wire that divided the city were removed.
In the following decades, as the Arabs pressed their long war against Israel, a remarkable transformation took place. Jerusalem's population soared, to more than 700,000 today from 263,000 in 1967 and 165,000 in 1948. Both the Arab and Jewish populations have risen sharply in the years since Israel gained control of the entire city.
In 1993, Israel, led by Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, signed a Declaration of Principles, seeking to set the stage for peace negotiations. It deferred the question of Jerusalem to the end of the process, to what were called permanent status negotiations. Mr. Clinton would devote much of his political capital to trying to bring it all together before the end of his presidency.
Congress, however, had long since begun to grow restive for recognition of the new realities, and in 1995, it passed, by an overwhelming vote, a measure called the Jerusalem Embassy Act. It was designed to end the absurdity of America failing to move its embassy in Israel to the country's capital and to establish Israel's capital in America law. It held that "Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected" and that "Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel."
Yet since then, no U.S. president, nor any state secretary, has acknowledged Congress's standing on the question of Jerusalem. Mr. Clinton refused to sign the Jerusalem Embassy Act, and it went into law without his signature. Nor have subsequent presidents abided by the spirit of the legislation. Instead they relied on a waiver in the law that gave the president discretion to delay the embassy move by six months—and to renew the delay by six months—to protect national security interests.
The waiver has since been used over and over again. When President George W. Bush used the waiver, he repeatedly stated that he intended to move the embassy at the right time. But President Barack Obama has dropped any statement of his future intentions. His administration, moreover, is now advancing so-called "proximity talks" that hold the danger the city could yet be divided in the way the Congress once cheered against dividing it.
This is the context in which Israel's religious Jewish community was so eager to have issued zoning approval for the apartments for the Haredi—or fervently religious—Jews. The timing of the action, coming as Vice President Joseph Biden was in Israel, has been widely denounced, even after Mr. Netanyahu himself apologized. It may be that, as Mr. Netanyahu suggested, the timing of the announcement was, from his point of view at least, an accident.
But it may also be that the religious Jews who control the ministry that made the announcement just looked at the political situation and decided they'd best mark their rights. And for all the hubbub the religious faction provoked, there are those of us who think they were wise to do so precisely at the moment of maximum sensitivity, when the visiting American vice president was to travel to the seat of the Palestinian authority at Ramallah.
There is a déjà vu quality to the whole thing. After Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister, President Clinton undertook a campaign to pressure Israel to give ground and keep the so-called peace process intact. Mr. Netanyahu did, in 1997, retreat from much of Israel's second holiest city, Hebron, leaving the religious Jewish families who wanted to live near the graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs in an armed camp.
The Clinton administration put great hope in the election, in 1999, of Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, as premier. One of Israel's greatest military heroes, Mr. Barak had vowed in his political campaign that he would never permit a division of Jerusalem. As he got drawn into the peace process, however, he did offer, at the talks known as Camp David II, to give the Palestinians part of Jerusalem as a capital. Yasser Arafat spurned a deal and returned to instigate what became known as the Second Intifada. The voters promptly ousted Mr. Barak and brought in as premier the man the left had for so long detested, Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Sharon had the good fortune to enter office as the American leadership was being turned over to Mr. Bush, who had enormous respect for his Israeli counterpart—for his military prowess, for the long historical sweep of his world view and for his vast experience in government. They both understood that in the war that followed Sept. 11, 2001, America's enemy was also Israel's enemy.
So Messrs. Bush and Sharon decided early on to attenuate the quarrelsome issues to focus on their own strategic military issues—Mr. Sharon defeated the intifada and Mr. Bush levied the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. What a tragedy it is that Mr. Obama has not been able to reach a similar modus vivendi with Mr. Netanyahu. The latest contretemps seems to have been taken by the Palestinians as an invitation to yet more violence. Which, if past is prologue, will lead to more demands on Israel and more threats.
It is a moment for Ms. Clinton to remember one of Prime Minister Begin's visits with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is recounted in an often-quoted 1992 column by Moshe Zak, then of the Jerusalem Post. The conversation grew so heated over the question of settlements that one of the senators raised his voice and banged on the table with his fist, threatening to cut off aid. Mr. Begin kept his dignity, replying that the desk was "designed for writing, not for fists." He warned that, though Israel was grateful for America's help, America was not "entitled to impose on us what we must do." The senator who had lectured him was Mr. Biden, who would go on to co-sponsor the Jerusalem Embassy Act.—Seth Lipsky is founding editor of the New York Sun.