Jerusalem and the Yitzhak Rabin legacy

I saw with great interest the full page ad taken out last week by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to mark Jerusalem Day, excerpting a 1995 speech by Yitzhak Rabin about Jerusalem’s importance to him. I was especially attracted to the lengthy quote by the late prime minister, congratulating the American Congress ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I saw with great interest the full page ad taken out last week by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to mark Jerusalem Day, excerpting a 1995 speech by Yitzhak Rabin about Jerusalem's importance to him. I was especially attracted to the lengthy quote by the late prime minister, congratulating the American Congress for its resolution to relocate the U.S Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the first week of May 1995, I happened to be sitting next to Rabin when he first heard the news about the new bill. It was in a private meeting, a few hours after he arrived in Washington for an address he was giving to the annual AIPAC conference. The prime minister didn't hide his rage. He accused Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, of attempting to sabotage the negotiations with the Palestinians. It was clear to Rabin, as well as the right-wing Israeli politicians and their supporters in AIPAC, that any attempt to change the status of Jerusalem would jeopardize the peace process.

I saw with great interest the full page ad taken out last week by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to mark Jerusalem Day, excerpting a 1995 speech by Yitzhak Rabin about Jerusalem’s importance to him. I was especially attracted to the lengthy quote by the late prime minister, congratulating the American Congress for its resolution to relocate the U.S Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the first week of May 1995, I happened to be sitting next to Rabin when he first heard the news about the new bill. It was in a private meeting, a few hours after he arrived in Washington for an address he was giving to the annual AIPAC conference. The prime minister didn’t hide his rage. He accused Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, of attempting to sabotage the negotiations with the Palestinians. It was clear to Rabin, as well as the right-wing Israeli politicians and their supporters in AIPAC, that any attempt to change the status of Jerusalem would jeopardize the peace process.

Rabin was willing to bet that the legislation would not actually change the U.S. policy on Jerusalem or the embassy’s location. He told me that in the early 1970s, when he was the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Congressmen Gerald Ford had promised him that if he ever became president, one of his first decisions would be to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. A few years later, he said, after both men had become leaders of their respective countries, Rabin visited the White House to remind President Ford of his promise. "He smiled at me and said ‘My dear Yitzhak, I do remember, but I have realized that life looks completely different from the Oval Office.’"

So when I saw him, it was quite clear to Rabin that the new resolution, which was happily endorsed by then Republican presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole, would be waived by President Bill Clinton. After all, Clinton had witnessed (in 1993) the signing ceremony of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (Oslo A), that included the following lines: "It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, etc" and that "Jurisdiction of the [Palestinian] council will cover West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, etc."

Neal Sher, who was at that time AIPAC’s executive director, told me in an interview for the book I co-authored with Nimrod Goren (The Jerusalem Capital Ambush:  The Political Maneuvers to Relocate the American Embassy in Israel; The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, [in Hebrew], 2002) that prominent figures in the organization made use of the embassy relocation issue in order to be viewed as guardians of Jerusalem and to place obstacles in front of the peace process.

When it became clear that the initiative was likely to pass Congress, Rabin had no option but to add his voice to the chorus of support — consistent with the many Israeli politicians, on both the right and left, who have often made statements favorable to the city’s unification.

Yet the facts on the ground reflect flagrant inequalities between the city’s western and eastern areas and between its Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants. It has been clear that the city’s political, economic, and demographic situation cannot be improved without tackling complex political problems arising from the existence of a large Palestinian minority in the city. Issues regarding Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the status of Israeli holy places will have to be addressed and resolved.

Fifteen years after Congress passed the resolution, there still has been no serious action taken to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That is because the clause attached to the act has made it possible for three successive presidents, including George W. Bush, to easily suspend it on the general grounds that it would harm national security. No U.S. president has dared to test Arab and Muslim reactions to a change in the status and location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Indeed, the fact that the embassy is still not in Israel’s capital demonstrates the degree to which administration policymakers have triumphed over those who are motivated by personal, short-term, political considerations. Moreover, no Israeli government has brought pressure to bear on its friends in Congress or on the American Jewish community to confront the White House on this subject.

The tribute to a "united Jerusalem" still didn’t save Rabin from the bullets of a right-wing Israeli who wanted to stop him from making an unavoidable compromise for peace. A few months after the speech in Congress, Rabin signed the interim agreement (Oslo B) that included the aforementioned stipulation that Jerusalem’s permanent status would only be settled in negotiations.

I am sure that if he were still with us, Rabin wouldn’t want the Conference of Presidents to use him for their campaign against a U.S. president who insists on keeping his legacy of peace alive.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. He is also the co-author of Lords of the Land, an exploration of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

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