Ramat Shlomo, the area of the proposed new construction at the center of the most recent row with the United States is a thriving community of over 100,000 Jews located between two larger Jewish communities, Ramat and French Hill. Its growth would not interfere with the contiguity of new Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. In every peace treaty that has ever been discussed, these areas would remain a part of Israel. No wonder the Israelis reacted so strongly when Obama called Ramat "a settlement." This was a change in the policies pursued by many previous U.S. administrations. For over 43 years, there has been a tacit agreement about construction, never something that constituted a problem in negotiations. The new policy was therefore seen as an Obama administration effort to force Israel to accept the division of Jerusalem, even before the peace talks start, taking yet another negotiating card off the table for the Israelis.
But what the world never remembers is what the Israelis can never forget. When Jordan controlled the eastern part of the city, including the Walled City, the Temple, and the ancient Wailing Wall, it permitted reasonably free access to Christian holy places. But the Jews? They were denied any access to the Jewish holy places. This was a fundamental departure from the tradition of freedom of religious worship in the Holy Land, which had evolved over centuries—not to speak of a violation of the undertaking given by Jordan in the Armistice Agreement concluded with Israel in 1949. Nobody should expect the Jews to risk that again.
Since Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967, it has faithfully protected the rights and security of Christians, Arabs, and Jews. Muslims have enjoyed the very freedom the Jews were denied under Jordanian occupation. Christians now control the Ten Stages of the Cross; Muslims control the Dome of the Rock. Yet the Palestinians often stone Jewish civilians praying at the Western Wall below. Their leaders and imams repeatedly deny the Jewish connection to Jewish holy sites. Freedom of religion is an American value that should not be compromised.
That is not all. Dividing Jerusalem would put Palestinian forces and rockets a few miles from Israel's Knesset. Also, the Jewish neighborhoods bordering Arab neighborhoods would be within range of light weapon and machine-gun fire. This is exactly what happened after the Oslo Accords, when the Palestinians fired from Beit Jalla toward Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhoods, wounding scores of residents.
The vast majority of Israelis believe Jerusalem must be shared and not divided. Even the great Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, who made the Oslo agreement, said, "There are not two Jerusalems; there is only one Jerusalem." The status of Jerusalem will be on the table if and when Palestinians and Israelis talk. But Obama's policy reversal has yet again given the Palestinians every reason not to negotiate. Now, the positions of both the Palestinians and the Israelis have hardened and the possibility of serious negotiations is again thrown into chaos.