In 1949, when the state of Israel was only 19 months old, David Ben-Gurion said: “The state of Israel has had and will have only one capital: Jerusalem the Eternal. This is how it was 3,000 years ago, and this is how it will be, as we believe, until the end of all generations.”
This quote is the basis for Israel’s unique Basic Law on Jerusalem, initiated by then-MK Geulah Cohen in 1980. Since then the law has undergone several changes, as well as one near-change that could have taken the city’s status to new heights – but was rejected.
Let’s return to 1967. The Israel Defense Forces repelled the Arabs on three fronts and retook the Old City, reuniting Yerushalayim. The barbed wire and concrete barriers that had divided Jerusalem – for only 19 years of its 3,000-year history – were torn down and Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration was extended to the eastern neighborhoods of the city.
Incidentally, Jerusalem’s Arab residents were immediately offered full Israeli citizenship, but most declined to accept it. Nevertheless, they retain the right to participate in municipal elections and enjoy all economic and social benefits afforded to citizens, including Israel’s health funds, social security, and more. They may maintain their own humanitarian, educational, and social institutions, but, as agreed in the original Oslo Accords of 1993, PA political institutions may not operate in Jerusalem.
Following the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, the Knesset passed the Preservation of the Holy Places Law, ensuring protection and freedom of access to the city’s holy sites. But what about Jerusalem itself?
That took 13 more years. In 1980, the Knesset legislated Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. As Geulah Cohen wrote in the bill’s introduction, “Until today, there has been no law that states clearly the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; MK Menachem Begin proposed such a bill in November 1949, but it was not passed. Neither is there any law regarding the unity and integrity of both parts of the city.”
The 1980 law thus states that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel” and the seat of its main governing bodies.
Six months before his assassination in 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made his position on Jerusalem very clear: “All governments of Israel, including the present government, have been fully confident that what was determined in 1967, what was legislated in 1980 transforming Jerusalem into a unified city under Israeli sovereignty, the capital of Israel, the heart of the Jewish people – these are facts that will endure for eternity”.
Since then, Israeli governments have consistently reiterated their position that while religious/cultural rights of all the city’s communities are to be guaranteed, Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel, undivided, under exclusive Israeli sovereignty.
The ongoing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority raised fears that some of the holy city, such as the Western Wall and other parts of or all of the Old City, might be handed over to foreign control. Thus, in 2000, three amendments were made to the 1980 Basic Law. Among them was this: “No part of the city may be transferred to foreign political or governmental rule.”
The question then becomes: In light of the fact that man-made laws are temporary by their very nature, what guarantee is there that, given a particular Israeli political constellation and international pressure, the Knesset will not vote to revoke the law and actually hand over parts of Jerusalem to foreign control?
The politicians of the time attempted to deal with this question and stipulated that the law may be changed only by a “special” majority, namely, 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.