Speaking in Qatar on Feb. 26, at an Arab League conference, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resumed the Palestinian attack on the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem. This diplomatic strategy began with his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who questioned whether the Temple ever existed at the end of the July 2000 Camp David summit: “There is nothing there.” Then U.S. President Bill Clinton was stunned. Arafat then asserted that Solomon’s Temple was in Nablus, not in Jerusalem. Two years later in leading pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, Arafat continued: “They found not a single stone proving the Temple was there ...”
A month after Camp David, Abbas himself continued with Arafat’s ideological position on the Temple in an Israeli-Arab weekly, adding: “... they claim that 2,000 years ago they had a temple. I challenge the claim that this is so.” In fact, many of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, who are perceived as moderate in the West, also began repeating this same theme. Nabil Shaath spoke to al-Ayyam and spoke about the Israeli claim that “its fictitious temple” once stood in Jerusalem.
Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, also declared: “For Islam, there never was a Temple at al-Quds, but a ‘distant mosque.’” Yasser Abd Rabbo told Le Monde, in September 2000, “There was no archaeological evidence that the Temple ever existed on the Temple Mount.” He added during an appearance on Palestinian television, broadcast on March 16, 2010, that Israel was planning to build “the false Temple” in order “to fulfill a legend.”
Now, Abbas is once again renewing this line of attack in Qatar, challenging whether there was any proof of Jewish historical claims. “Despite all the enormous capabilities that the occupation authorities made available to the extremists who engage in never-ending digging [and] threaten to make al-Aqsa look less significant and vindicate the Israeli narrative, they have failed miserably.” After making this point, he added that the Israeli authorities “were preparing models of what they call the Temple, in order to build it on the ruins of al-Aqsa.”
It was noticeable that Abbas could not bring himself to make reference to the Temple as a historical fact, but had to say “what they call the Temple,” which indicated he was not prepared to say it had ever existed. He also adopted the decades-old lie that Israel had a plan to endanger the al-Aqsa mosque.
Since Arafat first told Clinton that there never was a Temple, there has been a full-scale effort over the last decade, on the part of the Palestinian leadership, to make this idea of Temple denial take root through programs on Palestinian television, articles in the official Palestinian Authority newspapers, and mosque sermons that aim to deny the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In 2009, Palestinian religious leaders repeatedly declared that no evidence had been found that could prove a historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem or that the Temple had ever existed.
The great irony of this new Palestinian version of Jerusalem’s history is that it contradicts the original Islamic tradition. Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari (839-923 CE) was a leading commentator on the Quran and is known as one of Islam’s greatest historians. In his account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the second caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab, al-Tabari describes him heading toward “the area where the Romans buried the Temple [bayt al-maqdis] at the time of the sons of Israel.”
What is also striking about the current Palestinian campaign to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem is the fact that Umar himself allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, after the Romans and Byzantines kept them away for 500 years. As late as 1935, the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem, under the notorious mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, actually published a guidebook that gave the history of the Temple Mount, establishing that “its identification with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.”
So what is going on here? This is not just a question of education. If during one of his many trips to Rome, Abbas actually went to the Arch of Titus and viewed the engravings of the looted vessels from the Temple, including the Menorah, being carried in a Roman victory parade, it would not change his mind. Nor would it help if Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan guided Abbas to a museum in Istanbul to see a 2,000-year-old plaque from the Temple Mount warning foreigners not to enter the Temple area (Erdogan may not even be aware of what is in this Turkish museum). Ultimately, this is not a matter of establishing what is historical truth. Instead, the almost obsessive Palestinian preoccupation with denying Israel’s ties to Jerusalem is actually a new kind of political warfare they have decided to wage.
The Palestinians keenly understand the importance of Jerusalem to Israel – perhaps better than some on the Israeli side. They know that, historically, Jerusalem has had an essential role to play in the formation of Israeli identity. In any military struggle, a clear strategic objective is to strike at an adversary’s “center of gravity,” after which its collapse would be almost inevitable. Abbas’ envoy to Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, said on May 7, 2009, that if Israel were to withdraw from Jerusalem, the Zionist idea would begin to collapse. Thus, the purpose of their present assault on Jerusalem’s history is to strike at Israel’s “center of gravity” and weaken the foundations of the Jewish state.
The Palestinian Authority leaders have observed that most of the assertions they have made about Israel in recent years – like comparing it to apartheid South Africa – eventually get accepted without question or criticism. They have every reason to hope that the denial of the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem will gain supporters worldwide.
Israel needs to understand the contours of the new battle that has been imposed on it. It needs to insist that its representatives understand and learn for themselves Israel’s historical rights. These rights were well known to the generation of Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog, but unfortunately they have been forgotten in the recent past – at a time when they have become more relevant for the defense of Israel than ever.