The Holy City of Jerusalem and US-Israel Relations: How Did We Get Here? How Do We Move Forward?

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israeli government actions since Vice President Biden's visit have thrust Jerusalem into the forefront of the Obama administration's efforts to revive the peace process. They have brought US-Israel relations to their lowest point since the first Bush presidency. How did we get there? How can we get out?

In the years following Israel's victory in the Six Day War of June 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan, Israel spoke often and convincingly about its desire for peace. Israel surprised the world by negotiating directly with the PLO in Oslo, and Prime Minister Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Israel was viewed as the seeker of peace in the Middle East.

On the other hand, the Khartoum Arab Summit's adoption of the Three No's - no peace, no recognition, and no negotiation - in September 1967 convinced the Western World that the Arabs were the primary obstacles to peace.

Things have changed. After the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, Israel began to speak more about security than about peace. The United States began to speak as much about the fight against Palestinian terrorism as about the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Rabin had drawn a sharp distinction between settlements necessary for security and those which were part of Israel's Likud Party's plan to forestall a peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, after Rabin's assassination, Israeli Prime Ministers Sharon and Netanyahu accelerated Israeli settlement building designed to make it impossible for a Palestinian state to have contiguous territory. Sharon's unilateral withdraw from Gaza, without any negotiation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, gave credence to Hamas's claim that violent opposition had pushed Israel out of Lebanon and now violent attacks from Gaza had pushed Israel out of that territory. Sharon completely undercut the case of Abbas and his Fatah faction that a Palestinian state could come only from negotiation.

To the Israelis, the Gaza withdrawal proved that yielding territory would not enhance Israel's security. On the contrary, the terrorists, having "driven" Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza, would, Israelis felt, maintain their armed struggle to oust Israel from the West Bank and Jerusalem.

This reasoning was undermined by the Arab states when in 2002 the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia led the Beirut Arab Summit to declare that if Israel were to withdraw from the territories it had occupied in 1967, all the Arab states would recognize and make peace with it.

Sadly, Israel did not seek a way of reaching agreements with either the Palestinians or the Syrians that could test the willingness of the Arabs to fulfill this promise.

As Israeli leadership returned to Likud and its religious parties partners in 2009, Israel hardened its resolve to resist international pressure to end settlement expansion and housing construction in East Jerusalem. This fateful change in Israeli priorities comes at a time when the United States has hundreds of thousand of boots on Middle East soil and America feels vulnerable to Arab anger for enabling Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, especially Jerusalem, so important to Islam.

The United States, with its strong Bible-based Protestant traditions, had since the 19th century received strong support for a policy of encouraging Zionism and Israel. American Evangelical Protestants identified strongly with the idea that the Holy Land should again become the homeland of the Children of Israel. The in-gathering of the Jews fit very nicely with the pre-apocalyptic scenario. Bible-centered Christianity fostered a strong attachment to Jerusalem, whose streets their savior had walked. It was mainly Christian NGOs that concerned themselves with the status of Christians and Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Moreover, the political situation brought American Christians to emphasize their support for Jewish control of Jerusalem over Muslim claims to the city.

The Roman Catholic Church had been advocating an internationalization of Jerusalem since 1948. However, this position never received any support in Israel nor among Palestinians, as each wanted to dominate Jerusalem in the name of Judaism or Islam, respectively. Neither religion had much historical reason for trusting Christians to protect its rights.

All of these religious complexities and conflicting claims about Jerusalem could not converge into a clearly defined American insistence on a solution to Jerusalem's status. In 2010, with President Obama determined to bring about negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on all the permanent status issues, he needs to lead all sides to acknowledge the position of the three Abrahamic faiths in Jerusalem.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue has moved beyond politics to religion. The Obama administration must not only lead an agreement between two peoples who have been in conflict for a century, it must also start a reconciliation among the three faiths that have been competing for priority on God's right hand. Jerusalem now sits firmly in the center of the challenge facing President Obama.

Can the United States, a very strongly Christian society that has been the one most welcoming of a Jewish presence, utilize its unique experiences and religious communities -- which now includes six million Muslims -- to lead an interfaith effort of historic proportions?

Or, should the United States continue trying to convince the parties to permit a politically negotiated solution that circumvents these historic complexities?

The political path toward an agreement should have been the easier one to manage. The cascade of announcements and statements that started when Biden was in Israel last month renders that judgment no longer valid. Obama will now have to apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very different skills, sensibilities and depth of religious understanding than has ever before been required of the United States.

Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, is the author of Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East.