Former Israeli Envoy Zalman Shoval: No Jewish State Without Jerusalem
An elder statemen looks back on Jerusalem’s significance from the British mandatory period until today, and forward as Israel considers annexing parts of the West Bank
Zalman Shoval was twice appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United States, serving during the tumultuous years of the First Gulf War, participating in the 1991 Madrid conference, negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians, and the 1998 Wye River Conference. Throughout his long presence on the diplomatic scene, Shoval was involved in virtually every major event and occurrence. The ambassador also served in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, taking over the seat of the legendary founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, upon his retirement from the legislature in 1970. Throughout his career, Shoval emerged as one of Israel’s most successful spokesmen and advocates.
Shoval spoke with Felice Friedson about the significance of Jerusalem’s unification in 1967, the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and the possibility that Israel will annex parts of the West Bank. A transcript of the interview follows.
The Media Line: Ambassador Zalman Shoval is a senior statesman and former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Thank you for joining me at The Media Line.
Zalman Shoval: Thank you for having me, Felice.
TML: A pleasure. Israel is celebrating Yom Yerushalayim [Jerusalem Day]. This will be the 53rd celebration. Why is it different?
ZS: Well, I think it’s different because first I think we have seen a very important act upon recognition of Israel’s centrality in Jerusalem, or perhaps we should say Jerusalem’s centrality for Israel by the transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You know, it’s about 71 years, I think, since [then-Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion officially transferred the capital of Israel to Jerusalem as well as transferring the Knesset. But we didn’t have the de jure recognition even by the United States. Although the fact, I would say over time, over the years, most countries understood that Jerusalem is the capital and we have had American presidents and European presidents and prime ministers even speaking in the Knesset. And of course, all diplomatic negotiations and relations between Israel and the United States and other countries took place and take place in Jerusalem. But still, by moving the embassy, I think this was an act or affirmation which, which is very important. I think that’s one reason. The other reason is that we are in a period of changes, I would say, changes on the whole diplomatic front. Also, with regards to Israeli borders, the status of the territories and so on and so forth, and from that point of view, Jerusalem, again, is a very important factor, I would say. People don’t always recognize and people don’t always realize that even during the worst of fighting in the War of Independence in 1948 and 1949, for purely military reasons or technical or strategic reasons, there were military people, important military people, who advised Ben-Gurion to put the main emphasis of our ability to fight, let’s say in the Negev. And the Negev of course is and was very important. But Jerusalem said no, the main effort must be Jerusalem, because without Jerusalem, there’s not going to be a Jewish state. That has always been the main point of attention and I think this has been the main point of attention for many Israeli governments ever since. And therefore, this day of Jerusalem has such significance.
TML: What do you remember most about Jerusalem Day?
ZS: Well, you know, I can’t really point to something in particular, but obviously after the Six-Day War and the unity or the unification with the Old City, the old part of Jerusalem, which is really the heart of Jerusalem, after all, the new part of Jerusalem wasn’t created until about, well, less than 200 years ago after Moshe Montefiore built the first buildings outside of the wall. Jerusalem was always the Old City, mainly. And as a boy, and a young man, really as a young boy, I would say, I remember very well going to the Western Wall still during the time of the British Mandate. And it was an experience which one doesn’t forget. So, when during the Six-Day War, and I was in the army at that time, all of a sudden the radio announced the Kotel [Western Wall] is in our hands. Even though I am not a very religious person, I was very emotional. I think I had even tears in my eyes at that time and I heard similar reactions from different people, including some of the army commanders actually in the battle there for the Old City and for the Wall.
TML: The moving of the American Embassy is a fait accompli. Few other embassies followed suit. Why do you think that is?
ZS: Well, I think, you know, many countries, perhaps most countries, are still under the impression that this may create problems for them with parts of the Arab world. Maybe it will. And some countries also believe that this is detrimental to any chance of reaching a peace agreement or at least a situation of peace between us and the Palestinians. Whether they believe it or not or whether this is just a mantra which they repeat is another question. But America of course is the leader of the Western world, although not everybody, including perhaps the Americans themselves, want to admit that these days, but the fact is, they are. And therefore America is the most important, I think, it was the most important move and the other countries will follow because they won’t have any choice. If they want to be, if they want to serve the diplomatic relations of their country in this place, in Israel, they will have to accommodate the situation as it is. And the situation as it is, as I stated before, is that Jerusalem was the de facto capital all along and with the moving of the American Embassy, it has now received a major de jure imprint as well.
TML: Joining me is former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval. Jerusalem is hardly mentioned without a discussion of the word annexation. What are the pros and cons?
ZS: Are we talking about Jerusalem or are we talking now about other territories, [such as] the West Bank or whatever?
TML: We’re talking annexation at large and very often the words come together.
ZS: Yeah, well, you know, there’s, of course, I would say legal or a legalistic sort of debate about whether any part of the West Bank or the former West Bank or whatever it’s going to be called, can be termed annexation or not, because according to international law and including the charter of the United Nations, annexation means when a country takes hold of parts of another sovereign country. Now the West Bank was never a sovereign country. It was occupied territory by Jordan, or before that, Transjordan, and if one looks really at the antecedents of the whole situation, the only legal basis for that part of the land or for the whole land actually, was the San Remo agreement, made I think in 1921 or perhaps 22 based on the Balfour Declaration. So, one could say that Israel holding on to the West bank is really based on international law. But there are different views about that. And I think that what is important is the security angle from Israel’s point of view [which], also based on Resolution 242 of the Security Council of the United Nations, which talks very clearly about the condition of defensible, secure borders and that very much brings to the fore the question of annexation or not annexation of the Jordan Valley and the northern shore of the Dead Sea. There are different views about the exact procedure of how to keep control. Let’s call it [in] the positive way of – and I’m not expressing an opinion now from the, you know, from the moral or whatever, political point of view, but [in] a positive way – annexation. And this shouldn’t create much of a problem with regards to Palestinians because the Jordan Valley anyway, is very sparsely populated by Palestinians. I do not disregard issues like the Jordanian issue and so on and so forth.
TML: Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, thank you for joining me at The Media Line.