The Camp David meetings of 2000 involving President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat seemed at the time to offer the greatest hope yet for peace, and an end to the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. When things ended in failure and then exploded into the second Intifada, a host of commentators, analysts and participants looked back to determine what went wrong.
The moment in the days-long discussions — as reported by several Israeli participants — that resonated with me as the signature event was a reported conversation between the two delegations. The Israelis proposed that the holiest site in Jerusalem to both sides — the Temple Mount to the Israelis, the spot of the Dome of the Rock to Muslims — would be shared, with some formula of mixed sovereignty or no sovereignty to be determined and agreed upon.
This was a courageous decision by Barak, who was drawing a lot of criticism back home for offering to give up some control over Israel’s holiest site. He believed, however, that for real peace, Israel would have to make significant and emotionally charged concessions. In effect, he was acknowledging what was essential for peace: a recognition by each that the other side had a legitimate narrative.
At that very moment of reaching out, the Palestinian response was reported to have been something along the following lines:
What are you talking about, this being a Jewish holy site? It is a fantasy concocted by you. All we see is the mosque on the mountain.
To which an Israeli representative appropriately pointed out that when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, as he looked up, he saw no mosques, nor even any church. All he saw was the Temple of the Jews on the Temple Mount.
In other words, at the very moment that Israel made clear that there were two narratives in Jerusalem, the Palestinians were rejecting any Jewish narrative.
Rewriting history in Qatar
I tell this story because at the recently convened Arab conference in Qatar on the subject of Jerusalem (al-Quds in Arabic), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in language that was more oblique, and the Emir of Qatar more bluntly, made use of comparable references to the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
As one speaker after another engaged in the usual condemnation of Israeli behavior in Jerusalem, Abbas provided his own special historical touch, not directly saying that Jerusalem as a Jewish city was a historical fantasy, as was said at Camp David, but implying it: “Israel is deluding itself that it is capable of replacing the mosques and the Muslim history in Jerusalem with fairy tales, by which they seek to invent a history that will wipe out the religious and historical facts of Jerusalem.”
It is ironic that the Palestinian Authority president accused Israel of “inventing a history” in Jerusalem, when only last year, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Abbas did a masterful job of truly inventing history. In describing the Arab invasion in 1947, shortly after the UN voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab, Abbas wrote:
Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.
Needless to say, the Arab invasion was actually an effort to make sure that Israel would not exist as a Jewish state.
But the most egregious moment of “inventing history” at the Qatar conference — and there’s no evidence that Abbas or any other representative stood up to challenge its veracity — was a statement by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who said: “Jerusalem has been an Arab city for the past 3,000 years.”
What is there to say after that? How, after all the years of trying to educate leaders that peace and security can only come when both sides accept the legitimacy of the other, can one avoid despairing about the process? Have the Palestinians learned nothing at all about the last six decades — that their unjust denial of Israel’s historic connection to the Holy Land and the legitimacy of the Jewish state has caused untold suffering to the Palestinian people themselves?
Trying to address Palestinian leaders directly about this seems like a hopeless proposition. So let me speak to others who claim to seek justice for the Palestinians. If that is truly your cause, then all your efforts should be directed toward transforming Palestinian thinking about history, about the need to recognize not only the presence of the Jewish state but the foundational connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Absent that — and Abbas’s comments make clear that transformation has yet to occur — things will go on as they have.
And what a shame. Israelis will suffer from terrorist attacks and missiles launched at their populations. But, as always, Israelis will grit it out and move on with their lives. For Palestinians, the picture will be grimmer, as their obsession about denying Israel’s legitimacy will continue to haunt them and prevent the two-state solution they need so badly.