Shmuel Rosner
International Herald Tribune (Blog)
October 3, 2012 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — A week ago, just days before his U.N. speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met a small number of so-called American Jewish leaders. It wasn’t the first time he tried to talk with a group that supposedly holds sway with both American and Israeli audiences. But this encounter was awkward: many leaders of the major American Jewish organizations declined to attend, claiming that negotiating with them was no substitute for negotiating with the government of Israel — and all the more so since Abbas has for four years now refused to resume peace talks with Israel until the construction of settlements in the West Bank is frozen.

Even those Jewish leaders who participated found reason to complain. Why, one of them asked, won’t Abbas acknowledge the Jews’ ties to Jerusalem? In a statement two months ago, the Palestinian president’s office declared that the city “will forever be Arabic, Islamic and Christian.” Other Palestinian officials have also said that Jerusalem was Palestinian “throughout history” and questioned whether there ever was a Jewish temple on Temple Mount.

In response, according to reports from participants at the meeting — some of whom I’ve spoken with — Abbas made a pledge: he would show more sensitivity. And he invited the group to watch his address to the U.N. General Assembly, hinting that they would find in it a remedy to their complaints.

The speech was a disappointment. It was angry and full of frustration. (Abbas has once again been threatening to quit — though this might be a gambit to force other Palestinian leaders into begging him to stay and then give him more leeway.) As for Jerusalem, Abbas supposedly made good on his pledge to show more sensitivity to Jewish history by saying that the “land of peace” was “the birthplace of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the final resting place of Abraham (peace be upon him) — the land of the three monotheistic religions.”

This would seem to be a subtle acknowledgment that Judaism, being one of the three monotheistic religions, has some vague connection to the land of Israel. But that’s a bit too subtle for most Jews. Note Abbas’s shrewd choice of characters: Jesus is, no doubt, the ultimate Christian icon, and Muhammad is the Muslim prophet. But Abraham, as the father of all three monotheistic religions, is a much safer pick than Moses, Jacob or King David. What’s more, according to tradition, Abraham was buried in Hebron, a city in the West Bank that Palestinians claim in its entirety. (At least some of them are willing to split Jerusalem with Israelis.)

This part of Abbas’s speech was not about being sensitive to Jewish claims. It was a rhetorical trick.

Not that this matters to the historical record and to Jerusalem’s great Jewish past: David and Solomon, the first and second temples, Herod and the Roman siege. The day before Abbas’s speech, in synagogues around the world Jews recited the Yom Kippur prayer. A central part of it describes the sacred rites performed by the high priest at the temple on the mount. And it ends — and so the holiest day of Judaism ends – with this wish: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Abbas may deny, but Jews remember.

In such an atmosphere, it would be naive, maybe even foolish, to expect a calming of tensions in the land of peace. If after asking Jewish leaders to watch his speech, Abbas could only give them this meek acknowledgment of their ties to Israel, the long road to peace may be very long indeed.


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