Ancient Ruins Find a Role in Modern Political Discourse

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ancient Ruins Find a Role in Modern Political Discourse

Jerusalem ( - Some Israeli lawmakers are seizing on archeology as a way to fight Prime Minister Olmert's apparent plan to divide the city of Jerusalem.

The Knesset members see archeological digs as the best way to illustrate the link between the Jewish people, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel -- and to mobilize public opinion against the division of Jerusalem.

The revival of the archeology lobby in the last few weeks comes ahead of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian summit, which is supposed to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, before the end of the year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has indicated that he is willing to divide Jerusalem, keeping Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli control and giving Arab neighborhoods to the control of a future Palestinian state.

The archeology lobby wants to steer Israeli citizens against the idea, said Yigal Amitay, a spokesman for Knesset Member Uri Ariel of the rightwing National Union/National Religious Party.

In almost every place where archeological digging is taking place throughout Israel, archeologists are uncovering Jewish artifacts and history. But there is no place in the entire country where Palestinian history is unearthed, Amitay told Cybercast News Service on Wednesday.

The more archeological artifacts that are uncovered, Amitay said, the harder it will be for Olmert to gain Jewish support for making a deal on Jerusalem, he said.

Ten of the 13 lobby members toured archeological sites in and around the ancient Old City of Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Outside the Old City, the lawmakers visited the two-month-old excavation of Jerusalem's ancient water system. The system was not only used to carry away rain water. According to the writings of Josephus Flavius, it also was a hiding place and escape route for Jews fleeing the Roman destruction of the city around 70 A.D, said archeologist Eli Shukron.

Inside the Old City, opposite the Western Wall, the Knesset members visited one of the largest excavations carried out by the official Israel Antiquities Authority in the last 20 years. The excavation dates to the Roman colonization of Jerusalem (70-292 A.D.), said IAA Archeologist Jon Seligman.

Rabbi Nissim Ze'ev from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is currently a coalition partner in Olmert's government, said the stones themselves "testify to the history of the Jewish people in this place."

"The Jewish people were here a long time before the Palestinians arrived," Ze'ev told Cybercast News Service. But that is not the way that the Palestinians want to view it. They insist that the Jews arrived in 1948 when the State of Israel was created, he said.

Palestinian officials, starting with former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, have claimed that Jewish Temples never stood on the Temple Mount. In fact, two successive Jewish temples were located there before and during the time of Jesus.

Palestinian denials are seen by many people as an attempt to de-legitimize Israel's right to exist. If the Jewish people have no historical connection to the land, then there would have been no reason to establish a Jewish state here, the argument goes. (See earlier story)

Archeologists also have criticized the Israeli government for failing to stop renovations by Islamic religious authorities on the Temple Mount. They say the renovations have led to the destruction of countless antiquities. (See earlier story)

The lawmakers' visit to the Old City digs "has everything to do with Annapolis and nothing to do with Annapolis," said Knesset member Arieh Eldad, a member of the rightwing National Union/National Religious Party.

"We step on remains of more than 4,000 years of our history. My ability to be part of the Jewish nation is based on the stones that we step on," said Eldad. Olmert has no mandate to give up Jerusalem in the name of the Jewish people, he said.

"The U.S. is making a huge mistake because they are trying to push a very short-sighted political achievement when they try to press Israel to [make] concessions in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria [West Bank]," Eldad told Cybercast News Service.

If Israel turns over more land in the West Bank, it will lead to the creation of a second Hamas state there, he warned.

Eldad charged that Israel should not listen to the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, since she has twice pressured Israel into making concessions that turned out to be disastrous.

When she was National Security Advisor, Rice pressed Israel to allow Hamas to take part in Palestinian elections. Hamas won a stunning victory (and eventually took over the Gaza Strip).

Rice also was the key player in drafting an agreement that forced Israel to pull out of the Rafah passage between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. That has led to massive smuggling of weapons, explosives and Iranian training and know-how into the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials say.

"Her previous advice in this area [was] a fiasco," said Eldad. "Why should we listen this time?"