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Mubarak Pressing Case for Palestinian Jerusalem
Worried that his own regime may be at stake, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has warned that it is "now or never" for a landmark Mideast peace deal over the explosive issue of Jerusalem and placed the onus on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
The tough talk came in an interview with the French newspaper LE FIGARO published on Friday, just as Mubarak arrives in Paris to discuss the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. France has close ties with many Arab states and currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Mubarak reportedly wants to get European support for a "balanced" draft agreement on Jerusalem and other topics covered in final-status talks, without deferring any issues.
In the interview, Mubarak said "Israel needs to be willing to bend... They have everything, a state, an army and the territories taken in 1967. The Palestinians have nothing." He added that Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat would never succumb to pressure to make concessions on Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. "No Muslim would ever pardon him," he cautioned.
After assuming a lead mediating role in recent weeks on the main sticking point of Jerusalem, Egyptian officials have been mum about their proposals for resolving the dispute over the city, largely out of concern any compromise plan with their name on it could give Muslim extremists an excuse to set off a popular Muslim backlash in Cairo and elsewhere. But Mubarak's comments echoed a clarification by his Foreign Minister Amr Moussa earlier this week: "As there is Israeli sovereignty on Jerusalem, there should also be Palestinian sovereignty. This is the logic of justice and of international agreements."
Conflicting press reports have outlined various solutions under purported Egyptian parentage, with media accounts today indicating Egyptian diplomats have suggested a plan that would allow Israel and the Palestinians to jointly administer Jerusalem during a 5- to 10-year trial period. The idea, summed up as "one city with two administrations," has been presented to both sides and the US, according to an Arab diplomat and an Egyptian expert close to the talks who chose to remain anonymous. Under the plan, Israel would control and have unrestricted access to the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter, while the Temple Mount compound and rest of the Old City would be in Palestinian hands. The Egyptian proposal uses ambiguous terms like "functional sovereignty" and "administrative control" to try to defuse the heated battle over who should ultimately rule the Old City and its holy sites.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak responded to the reports by repeating his stand that he is not willing to discuss any US or Egyptian proposals so long as Arafat shows no signs of flexibility on Jerusalem. In all of his public addresses since he torpedoed the Camp David summit in July, Arafat has insisted on full Palestinian sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem and its Christian and Muslim holy sites.
Barak and Arafat are scheduled to meet separately with US President Bill Clinton in New York next Wednesday, on the sidelines of the UN's "Millennium" summit, and the Israeli leader views the encounter as a crucial barometer of whether Arafat is ready to strike a final peace deal or not. Barak believes he has until the end of September - and the onset of the Jewish High Holy Days - to wrap up a deal, or his first term in office may be over.
In preparation for next week's meetings, US special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross has begun drafting for Clinton a "working paper" summarizing the points of agreement and disagreement at Camp David, but the effort has run into immediate snags. Both sides are blaming the other for backing out of previous commitments. To many Israelis, the American exercise appears somewhat strange, since Barak said right after Camp David that all offers made there were "null and void," while Clinton confirmed neither side was "bound" by what was discussed at the presidential retreat.
When pressed by IMRA, Barak's office refused this week to comment on whether anything offered at Camp David really was null and void. One Israeli diplomat later explained Barak thinks that, since the Palestinians did not "rise to the bait" dangled before them at Camp David, they cannot now expect Israel to commit to the same "far-reaching" concessions without first seeing some Palestinian flexibility - especially since he is politically weaker now.
Barak also dismissed press reports of an American proposal to divide the Temple Mount into four sectors, saying he knew of no such proposition. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert blasted the idea on Wednesday as "totally unacceptable" and "a prescription for inevitable confrontation." It was the first of a series of public comments by Olmert that drew him into the center of the fray over the city.
In a surprise announcement, Olmert later said he supports the revived idea of declaring the Temple Mount under "divine sovereignty," provided the status quo at the site remains unchanged. "The idea of divine sovereignty is something that can be pursued. Fundamentally, it offers a continuation of the present status quo, which means there is complete security control over the Temple Mount by Israel, and at the same time complete access for Muslims at the holy places of Islam," he said. Olmert denied, however, that he was softening his positions on Jerusalem. "I never said that I will agree to anything less than full Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem," he insisted.
In subsequent interviews, Olmert played down his remarks as a "semantic compromise" and repeated calls for the ouster of Barak's government for dividing Jerusalem, but it marked the first time a prominent member of the Likud had voiced support for a possible solution that could fill in the key puzzle piece to Barak's peace agenda. Earlier, the PA minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs, Ziad Abu-Ziyyad, also endorsed the idea, albeit for opposite reasons. "If in practical terms we will be the landlord [on the Temple Mount], than why argue over the issue of sovereignty?" he queried.
The notion of the parties declaring "divine sovereignty" over the Temple Mount has been traced back to the late King Hussein of Jordan, but was reportedly ruled out recently by Palestinian negotiators. Now back in play, Israeli analysts say both sides may ultimately find it the most attractive idea, since it is an alternative to international or UN control over the Old City, which neither relishes.
Olmert also sparred with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Ekrima Sabri, who told the BBC: "Sovereignty is for God. And it is God who decided that Jerusalem is for the Arabs and the Muslims." Olmert, speaking during the same interview, responded: "With all due respect, we [Jews] got the word from God that he wants us to run this place."
Meanwhile, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Archbishop Christodolos is paying a visit to Jerusalem this week and met with President Moshe Katsav and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, telling them his Church and Judaism have no disputes on the subject of Jerusalem. He added that his following wants to see free access to all holy sites to all worshipers from the three monotheistic religions. These comments sharply undermine Arafat's repeated claims that he is representing Christians everywhere in his quest to "liberate" the holy sites of Jerusalem.
Finally, an Israeli police spokesman for the Jerusalem District clarified this week what exactly is the "status quo" on the Temple Mount. A response to IMRA read: "There are uniformed Israel Police present on the Temple Mount. There is no police post on the Temple Mount itself, just as there is no police post at other holy places in the city. The decision to respond to a given security incident with the injection of additional forces is made on a case-by-case basis." The statement conflicted with recent remarks by leading figures in Barak's government that Israel does not currently maintain a presence at the site.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.