JERUSALEM: Divided City in a Divided Land.

July 23, 2011

Three student readings explore the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem, tensions between the US and Israel over the issue, and how it affects US relations with Arab nations and people.

To the Teacher:

Without an agreement on the future of Jerusalem, no two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is likely.
The conflict over Jerusalem came to the fore last month when Israel demonstrated its determination to go ahead with housing construction projects in East Jerusalem. Since a halt in settlement expansion is essential for significant movement toward a two-state solution, the Obama administration objected privately and publicly to the Israelis about the East Jerusalem projects. "Insulting" and "humiliating" flare-ups became front page news during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel and during Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's to the White House.
The first student reading below describes these March events.The second provides a snapshot of Jerusalem's long history, an excerpt from Netanyahu's remarks to the very influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee during his Washington visit, and an account of Israel's violation of international law in East Jerusalem. The third reading includes excerpts from General Petraeus' recent comments about Arab nations' "perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" and the way that perception is exploited by terrorist groups. The reading also summarizes the military relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and concludes with a view of the likely consequences if a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not achieved.
Earlier TeachableMoment.Org materials on the conflict include "Israelis & Palestinians: 'A Clash between Right and Right'" and "Israelis vs. Palestinians: New Leaders & Old Problems," which also covers the Gaza situation, the barrier, and background on Hamas. "Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States" gives special attention to the Palestinian refugee issue.

Student Reading 1: 

A stressful month for U.S.-Israel relations

"The deep bonds of friendship between the U.S. and Israel remain as strong and unshakeable as ever," President Obama said a few months after his inauguration (4/28/09).
But weeks later, President Obama objected publicly to Israel's settlement-building on Palestinian territory after a meeting in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Settlements have to be stopped for us to move forward." (5/18/09) Move forward, that is, toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Biden blindsided
March 2010 was a very stressful month for U.S.-Israel relations—both publicly and privately. Early in the month Vice President Joseph Biden made a good will visit to Israel. But as soon as he arrived he was blindsided by an Israeli cabinet minister's announcement that Israel was going ahead with plans to build 1,600 housing units in largely Palestinian Arab East Jerusalem.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the timing of the announcement "insulting." Netanyahu ordered an investigation into "the timing" of what he called "an unfortunate incident that was unintentional....and hurtful." Both officials stressed the time of the announcement, not its substance. But Netanyahu also made it clear that plans for the housing will go forward.
Israeli building in Jerusalem vs. Obama policy
Later that month in his visit to Washington, Netanyahu told an audience of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a major pro-Israel lobbying group, "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital...." He said that the neighborhoods where Israel is building "are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem. Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement."
Netanyahu's predecessor, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, had said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on September 21, 2008: "We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied territories.]"
Yedioth Ahronoth reporters asked: "Including Jerusalem?"
Olmert: "Including Jerusalem....Whoever talks seriously about security in Jerusalem....must be willing to relinquish parts of Jerusalem." When he was in office, Olmert had never stated such a provocative view about Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to enter further negotiations with Israeli officials until they halt construction in East Jerusalem. He has also said, "The whole world knows that East Jerusalem, holy Jerusalem, was occupied in 1967 and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state." (Reuters, 6/4/08)
During his presidential campaign, Obama said in a Washington speech, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." (Reuters 6/4/08) But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in November 2009 that President Obama now said, "East Jerusalem does not constitute part of the State of Israel."
It is evident that the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister disagree about what "everyone knows" and what "the whole world knows" and that the U.S. president has changed his mind about Jerusalem.
Israel-U.S. relationship under stress
As if to underline Netanyahu's housing plans, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz announced just before the prime minister went to the White House for a March meeting with Obama that Jerusalem officials have "given final approval to a group of settlers to construct 20 apartments" on the site of an East Jerusalem hotel that is to be torn down.
Though they met at the White House, Netanyahu and Obama did not have dinner together nor did they pose for photographers. The president left his meeting with the prime minister, which did not produce any progress on the settlements issue, to have dinner with his wife and children, according to Israeli reports of what they called Netanyahu's "humiliation." "Let me know if there is anything new," Obama said before leaving, according to a U.S. congressman who spoke to the prime minister.
For the first time in many years, the U.S.-Israel relationship turned chilly. 
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What are the conflicting views of Israeli and Palestinian leaders about the future of Jerusalem?
3. Why did Biden's visit to Israel and Netanyahu's to Washington produce tension between the U.S. and Israel?
4. Why do you suppose both Clinton and Netanyahu emphasized the timing of the Jerusalem construction announcement?
5. How did Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks to AIPAC conflict with those of President Obama's?
6. How would you explain Olmert's comment about Jerusalem?
7. What conflicting statements about East Jerusalem has President Obama made? How would you explain them?

Student Reading 2:

Jerusalem's many rulers

Jerusalem has a long history and is sacred to three worldwide religions.
  • Judaism: Jewish temples once stood on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Kings David and Solomon are said to have ruled the city.
  • Christianity: Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem and, Christians believe, ascended to heaven from his gravesite there.
  • Islam: Muslim mosques stand on the mount that Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, "Sacred, Noble Sanctuary." Muslims believe that Mohammad took his night journey to heaven from this spot.
Archeological findings at Jerusalem
Archaeological excavations reveal that humans occupied the site of Jerusalem about 5,000 years ago. Jerusalem "was founded between 3000 BCE and 2600 BCE by a West Semitic people or possibly the Canaanites, the common ancestors of Palestinians, Lebanese, many Syrians and Jordanians, and many Jews. But when it was founded Jews did not exist," Middle East historian and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole writes (, 3/23/10).
"Jerusalem not only was not being built by the then non-existent 'Jewish people' in 1000 BCE, (3000 BC)," write Cole, "but Jerusalem probably was not even inhabited at that point in history. Jerusalem appears to have been abandoned between 1000 BCE and 900 BCE, the traditional dates for the united kingdom under David and Solomon....No sign of magnificent palaces or great states has been found in the archeology of this period...."
Jerusalem's conquerors
Cole lists the centuries of rulers over what became Jerusalem—Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids of ancient Iran, Alexander's Macedonians, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. In 168, the Maccabean Revolt brought the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom to power; they ruled until 37 BCE.
Then came the Romans, Byzantiums, the Iranian Sassanian Empire, the Byzantiums again, the Muslims, the Christian Crusaders, and again the Muslims, who ruled Jerusalem until the end of World War I and for about 1192 years.
"Adherents of Judaism did not found Jerusalem," says Cole. "It existed for perhaps 2,700 years before anything we might recognize as Judaism arose. Jewish rule may have been no longer than 170 years or so, i.e., the kingdom of the Hasmoneans...."
Israel's takeover of East Jerusalem
Israel's defeat of Arab nations established its independence as a Jewish state in 1948. But Jerusalem was divided between West Jerusalem under Israeli control and East Jerusalem under Jordan's control.
After Israel defeated Arab states in a 1967 war, Israel took over East Jerusalem and its mostly Palestinian Arab population from Jordan. Since then, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem reports that Israel has expanded the boundaries of the city and physically isolated it from the rest of the West Bank, demolished Palestinian homes, seized Palestinian land for construction of Israeli apartments and homes, prevented Palestinian residents who stay abroad for at least seven years from returning, and unfairly divided the budget for the two parts of the city, with "harmful effects" on services in East Jerusalem. (
The official Israeli explanation for the demolition of Palestinian homes is that they were built without building permits.
The Boston Globe reports that while the Israeli government "has sanctioned the construction of nearly 50,000 homes for Jews, it has built none for Palestinians, according to figures from B'Tselem." According to the Globe, "in addition to about 250,000 Israelis living in more than 100 settlements" on Palestinian land in the West Bank, "about 180,000 Israelis now live in East Jerusalem" with about 250,000 Palestinians. (, 3/27/10)
Israel vs. international law
The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 includes the following provision: "The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." A UN Security Council Resolution reaffirmed this provision on November 22, 1967. As a result, neither the U.S. nor any other country, recognizes Israel's claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders claim at least East Jerusalem as its capital for any future state.
"Who is right?" asks the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benevisti, of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. "The question is superfluous. The chronicles of Jerusalem are a gigantic quarry for which each side has mined stones for the construction of its myths—and for throwing at each other." (City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem, 1996)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. How does Juan Cole's discussion of Jerusalem's history conflict with Netanyahu's? How would you determine which account, if either, is correct?
3. How did Israel come into possession of East Jerusalem?
4. In what ways is Israeli activity there in violation of international law?
5. How do you think Israel would respond to the accusation that it is violating international law? If you don't know, how might you find out?
6. What is Benevisti's view of conflicting claims to Jerusalem? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Student Reading 3:

A close, "unshakeable bond"?

A frank statement from a U.S. commanding general
General David Petraeus, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2010:
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in [a U.S. military area of responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
General Petraeus' statement commanded unusual attention because of his important military position and a frankness uncommon among top officials.
A frank statement from the U.S. vice president
Vice President Joseph Biden reportedly echoed Petraeus' view directly to Netanyahu after being embarrassed by the announcement that Israel was building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. According to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he said, "This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
The newspaper also reports that Biden told his hosts "any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism." (, 3/14/10)
A close, mutually supportive relationship
The U.S.-Israel relationship has been very close and mutually supportive for many years. The Washington Post reports that U.S. support for Israel includes an average of about $3 billion yearly "earmarked entirely for military spending. Under an agreement between the two allies, at least three-quarters of the aid must be spent with U.S. companies...."
This means that the "'close, unshakable bond,'" as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described it, is also a mutually beneficial one: Israel gets the latest American military technology, and American weapons makers - Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and others - get a steady stream of income.
"According to Israeli defense sources and U.S. congressional reports, Israel spends the bulk of its aid on warplanes such as F-15s and F-16s, jet fuel, high-end munitions and missile defense systems - weaponry the Israeli military would find difficult to replace or do without." (, 3/14/10)
The supply of millions of gallons of fuel oil, joint military exercises, cooperation on military strategies and in such fields as counter-terrorism, science and economic development are other examples of U.S. support. In return, Israel supplies the U.S. with military intelligence and ideas about potential threats and helps to ensure against the obstruction of Persian Gulf oil shipments.
How to achieve a "two-state solution"?
The U.S.'s stated policy in the region is to support a "two-state solution," with Israel and an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace.
Top priorities for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well-known and include:
1) Creation of a contiguous state for Palestinians, with East Jerusalem as its capital, that includes
the West Bank, where some 430,000 Israelis now live. 
2) Security guarantees for Israel.
Failure to reach a two-state solution appears to jeopardize not only the stateless, embittered Palestinians, but also the future of Israel as both a democratic and a Jewish state.
As the possibility of a two-state solution disappears, what will likely appear is either:
• an undemocratic, apartheid Jewish state. (Some have compared this to South Africa, an undemocratic, apartheid white state.) Israeli Jews, in the not too distant future, will be outnumbered by embittered, stateless Palestinian Muslims who will have no citizenship rights, but whose birth rates are significantly higher.
• a democratic, non-Jewish state. The admission of Palestinian Muslims to citizenship means they will in time constitute a majority and will have the votes to win power.
If President Obama tries to pressure Israel, he faces formidable obstacles in the United States. That includes AIPAC, which recently got a majority of Congress ( 76 senators and 333 House members) to sign a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the administration to defuse tensions with Israel.
So will the Obama administration make a forceful effort to press Israel toward a two-state solution? Without U.S. pressure, many commentators agree, there is little chance it will be achieved. But that pressure now seems unlikely.
The president said he thinks "the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the Arab states remains as critical as ever," but he also thinks "the United States can't impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism. I think it was former Secretary of State Jim Baker who said, in the context of Middle East peace, we can't want it more than they do." (4/13/10)
Ten days later Netanyahu said on Israeli TV, "I am saying one thing: there will be no freeze[on building] in Jerusalem." (4/23/10) But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, declared, "We have said again and again: settlements or peace—they can't have both." (5/1/10)
Nevertheless, what are called "proximity" talks will begin during the first week of May 2010. U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will act as a go-between for talks about talks between Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian in Ramallah in the West Bank. The goal is to achieve agreement on direct talks between the two parties. "Many experts agree that the chances of a breakthrough are minuscule...." (Mark Lander, New York Times, 5/1/10) But there is a rivalry between two Palestinian factions - Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The U.S. and Israeli have condemned Hamas (which won an election among Palestinians) as a terrorist group, and refuse to take part even in proximity talks that include the Hamas.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. According to General Petraeus and Vice President Biden, why does the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict have a negative effect on the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? On relations with Arab countries? Do you have enough information for an opinion about the remarks of the general and the vice president? If so, do you agree with them? Why or not? How might you learn more?
3. What evidence is there of a "close, unshakeable bond" between the U. S. and Israel? What makes this bond important to both countries?
4. Why is a settlement of the conflicting claims to Jerusalem critical in any overall settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What other issues are there? If you are unsure, how might you find out?
5. What is meant by "a two-state solution"? Why is the U.S. in a position to press Israelis and Palestinians to achieve it? 
6. How do you think a failure to achieve a solution affect the U.S.? Palestinians? Israelis?
7. What competing pressures does the Obama administration face in its efforts to promote a two-state solution? Why do you think the president quoted Secretary Baker about Middle East peace efforts?

For inquiry

What evidence is there to support, oppose, or have mixed views about any of General Petraeus' comments?
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict "foments anti-American sentiment" in a U.S. military area of responsibility.
  • "Anti-American sentiment" results from "a perception" of U.S. favoritism for Israel." 
  • "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples" in the Middle East.
  • "Arab anger....weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."
  • "Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."
  • "The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas"
What evidence is there to support, oppose, or have mixed views about any of Vice President Biden's statements?
"What you (Netanyahu) are doing here (in East Jerusalem) undermines the security of our troops...." Consider this statement in relation to Iraq. To Afghanistan. To Pakistan.
[What Israel is doing] " endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: