On the sidelines of today's opening of the United Nation's historic "Millennium summit" - billed as the largest-ever gathering of world leaders - US President Bill Clinton will confer separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a last-ditch bid to broker a compromise in their high-stakes fight over Jerusalem.
More than 150 heads of state have converged on Wednesday in the UN's General Assembly auditorium in New York to address a full agenda of pressing global problems - world hunger and poverty, persistent conflicts, health and environmental concerns. Clinton was one of the first to deliver a short speech to the plenum this morning, and is set to privately host Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat in the presidential suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the afternoon. In his opening remarks, Clinton reiterated there is "not a moment to lose" in the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, now snagged by questions over which side will permanently rule the Old City of Jerusalem and its revered holy sites.
Adopting a very frank approach, Barak used his five minutes of podium time to directly challenge Arafat to conclude a peace treaty with Israel while there is still time. Barak emphasized that "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and will remain united and open to all who love her," and delivered a booming call "for a peace of honor, courage and brotherhood."
Straining under the tight time limits, Arafat spent his moment in the spotlight whisking through an overly familiar list of grievances, including Israel's "Judaization" of Jerusalem, confiscation of Arab land, and "siege" of Bethlehem. There was little indication he was finally willing to yield ground in Jerusalem.
After years on the back burner, the fate of Jerusalem was finally placed on the bargaining table at the Camp David summit in July, and Barak agreed to discuss a package of compromise proposals for ending the dispute over the city. But Arafat balked at any solution that did not give him full sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem and especially the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount.
In the weeks since, he has sought and received broad Arab/Islamic support for his hard-line position on the city, and arrived in New York sounding as rigid as ever in his demands - creating an impasse that threatens to derail the seven-year-old Oslo peace process. "I will not be flexible on the holy places," Arafat growled on CNN today. "It is Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim holy places, and everyone must respect it."
US envoys detected no change in the Palestinian leader's stance in their recent shuttles to the Middle East, and Barak believes that, in the remote event he is ready to compromise, Arafat will only make this known to Clinton in person today. Otherwise, Barak insisted on Tuesday: "We have reached the end of the corridor that was paved by [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres in the Oslo agreement." Barak claimed, "I have gone a long way, and I have not received any kind of an answer from Arafat. Since Camp David he has been regressing, and my feeling is that he is moving in the Islamic direction of being the guardian of the holy places."
Barak and Arafat have already been busy pressing their respective cases among the myriad of international figures attending the summit. The Israeli premier met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday evening and indicated that he will give the peace process another "few weeks" before turning his attention to his precarious political situation at home. Barak knows he has until the middle of October to seal a landmark deal, before the Israeli Knesset reconvenes and determines whether his government will survive.
Annan responded that the two sides have "never been so close... but of course there is also a question of time... One is looking at President Clinton's own term. One is looking at the Israeli political calendar. One is looking at the issues President Arafat himself has to deal with," said Annan. "Let's not kid ourselves, the issues are very complex."
Besides other early encounters with leaders from Jordan, Portugal, Finland and Spain, Barak also huddled with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and later claimed the Clinton Administration agreed with Israel's position that Arafat must have a more "open, realistic approach" for there to be a "breakthrough necessary for an agreement." One American official was more cautious in his pre-summit assessment, saying "It's been hard to build on the advances achieved at Camp David... There is an opportunity and we don't know how long it's going to last."
If Arafat budges, the Clinton team may try for a three-way meeting away from New York and the media spotlight by week's end. Should Arafat maintain his present collision course, Clinton may decide to leave the whole problem to the next US president, while scrambling to prevent a regional flare-up in the final months of his watch.
Due to US and Israeli lobbying efforts targeted especially at European governments, Arafat seemingly has backed away from his previous deadline of September 13 for unilaterally proclaiming a Palestinian state, and the PLO's Central Committee is expected to meet in coming days to formally postpone the declaration until later this year. But at the same time, Arafat has stiffened in his determination to wrest control of the Old City, even though some of his top deputies are willing to explore a compromise.
The reason for his intransigence likely lies in Arafat's personal quest to "liberate" Jerusalem, in the mold of Saladin, the Muslim warlord who defeated the Crusaders nearly 1000 years ago. The aging PLO chief feels he has already established his place in history as the "father" of the Palestinian state, but still harbors ambitions of being revered as a pan-Arab and Islamic hero by leading a triumphant procession into Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount after it has been placed under his control. Arafat "miraculously" survived several assassination attempts and military sieges, and a mysterious plane crash in the Libyan desert, and on each occasion, declared Allah allowed him to live in order to reach his "destiny" of Jerusalem.
Further, Arafat has repeatedly placed himself within Koranic prophecies that speak of Judgment Day coming only when a tribe of Muslims defeats a tribe of Jews and a last-day Islamic figure "enter[s] the mosque, as he [Muhammad] entered the mosque," interpreted as a reference to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Recently he confirmed, "I am a religious person" who will never surrender Islamic claims to Jerusalem.
While Arab and Islamic leaders back Palestinian political aspirations in Jerusalem, they do not necessarily share Arafat's religious self-delusions. And even one of his top lieutenants on Tuesday voiced approval for the option of "internationalizing" Jerusalem. Ahmed Qurie (Abu Ala), Speaker of the Palestinian Legislature, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday that if Israel could not accept the Palestinians' demand for east Jerusalem, the Holy City should be put under international jurisdiction. United Jerusalem should become "the capital of the world... The Palestinian Authority will agree to this plan, if this is what is needed for true peace," he ventured.
Speaking in the same forum, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg echoed the idea that a radical approach toward the sovereignty of Jerusalem should be considered. "(The late) King Hussein (of Jordan) said the issue of the sovereignty of Jerusalem was almost insoluble and we should give the sovereignty of God back to God," Burg said. "I am very happy that this concept has not yet been rejected by either side ... let's explore it," he pleaded.
However, acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami immediately rejected such ideas. "What does it mean, an international city? There is no such thing," he told reporters. Ben-Ami said both sides instead could be satisfied with "symbolic sovereignty" on the Temple Mount. He further warned, "It would be a great mistake on the part of Arafat to make the entire solution of the Palestinian problem, the entire solution of the Middle Eastern conflict, hostage to the symbolic future of a mosque."
Today, Cabinet minister Shimon Peres also ridiculed proposals to place the city under international rule or declare "divine sovereignty" over its holy sites. "Things lacking any foundation are thrown out into the air, such as 'internationalizing' Jerusalem," Peres told ISRAEL RADIO. "How can Jerusalem be made an international city? Who would run it - Outer Mongolia?" he mocked. "It's just gibberish."
Not to be left out, fellow dovish minister Yossi Beilin said he believed a solution to the issue of Jerusalem was "just around the corner," and suggested Barak still has more room for making concessions to Arafat. Some Israeli press reports indicate Barak indeed has yet more concessions up his sleeve to entice Arafat into a final-status agreement. This includes an offer to cede an additional 2% of Judea/Samaria to the PA, for a total of 90% of the disputed territory. The Palestinians have demanded 97%. Finally, Barak may now be willing to sign a partial agreement that would essentially defer decisions over the explosive issue of Jerusalem for Arafat's successor.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.