Don’t Blame Palestinians for Stubborness over Jerusalem – August 2, 2000

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Seldom has so much effort been expended in sustained and intense negotiations as that witnessed at Camp David last week. President Clinton deserves high credit not only for bringing the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together in the bucolic surroundings of Camp David, but also for his personal involvement and participation to solve the thorny and complex issues that divide the two antagonists. That the talks ended in failure must be disappointing to Barak, Arafat and Clinton.

When the United Nations partitioned Mandatory Palestine in 1947 between Israel and Palestine over the vociferous objections of the Arab countries and some others, the plan envisaged giving around 55 percent of the territory to Israel and 45 percent to Palestine. The plan was unacceptable to the Arab states.

Israel’s proclamation of independence in 1948 ignited the first Arab-Israeli war, which went badly for the Arabs; Israel gained more territory.

In the 1967 war, Israel captured Arab east Jerusalem, among other territorial gains, from Jordan, that country having occupied it during the 1948 war.

To many Israelis the whole of Jerusalem belongs to Israel, as Jewish history testifies.

It was the capital of King David two and a half thousand years ago and again at the advent of the Christian era before being sacked by the Romans in 78 A.D.

But Jerusalem is also equally holy to Christians and Muslims whose histories, national identities and emotions are inextricably tied to that holy city.

That is why the United Nations resolution partitioning Palestine had recommended a separate international status for Jerusalem with free access to the followers of the three religions who acknowledge the Prophet Abraham as their common ancestor.

Since the 1948 war, Jerusalem has been the Gordian Knot that prevents a final peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Successive Israeli governments since 1967 have claimed Jerusalem as its ” eternal and indivisible” capital. Considering that Jerusalem has changed hands several times during the past 3,000 years, the statement may appear excessively optimistic.

The Palestinians have equally emotive claims to Jerusalem: they call it “Al Quds Al Sharif,” i.e. the holy and noble city. It is site to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest shrine in Islam) venerated by 1 billion Muslims. Jerusalem also was ruled by the Arabs and the Ottomans for many centuries.

For Christianity, Jerusalem is equally holy. The Prophet Jesus preached there, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other holy sites are in the Old City.

Only recently Pope John Paul II on the eve of the Camp David summit again called for an international status for Jerusalem, giving it access to followers of the three Abrahamic faiths.

Given Jerusalem’s history and the fervor it arouses among Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, was it surprising that Chairman Arafat could not renounce his claim to Arab East Jerusalem? According to his logic, he has conceded the right of the Israelis to the rest of Jerusalem, so they should reciprocate for Arab East Jerusalem.

The summit talks essentially revolved round and round this point with neither Barak nor Arafat able to square the circle.

It is therefore not quite fair to apportion blame for the failure of the talks, as some commentators have done, on Chairman Arafat alone. He was being asked to sign over title to Arab East Jerusalem to Israel, an area conquered by them in 1967.

Had he caved in, he would have earned the wrath of the Arab and Islamic world and his political standing would have been seriously if not fatally undermined.

If the Israelis and the Palestinians can somehow moderate their irreconcilable and entrenched attitudes on Jerusalem, the other issues relating to the contours of a Palestinian state, the question of Palestinian refugees, water rights etc. are likely to fall in place. These are not make or break issues.

The main benefit of the Camp David exercise was to get the Israelis and Palestinians to tackle the taboo issue of Jerusalem.

It is heartening that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have vowed to keep talking and negotiating. So far neither side has resorted to violence that would have retarded the peace process.

History and geography have fated the Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in historical Palestine. The hardest part for both is to let go of entrenched attitudes. For the Israelis, Camp David was the first time Jerusalem was discussed with the possibility that is would have to be shared with the Palestinians.

Without shared sovereignty over Jerusalem it is difficult to visualize how peace can be finally achieved. The Palestinians also have to adjust to the current realities and make concessions.

The Israelis are in the driver’s seat. The Palestinians are not. We have to remain hopeful and optimistic that people of good will and vision, Israelis and Palestinians alike, will surmount past prejudices and positions and attain the common goal of peace and security for their children and their children’s children.

— S. Azmat Hassan is a former Pakistani diplomat.
— From: The Daily Record, Morristown, NJ
— Published: August 2, 2000

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