Arafat Too Fixated on 'Liberating' Jerusalem
The Israeli-Palestinian peace track ground to a pronounced halt this week, as US President Bill Clinton was unable to convince PLO chief Yasser Arafat to give up his delusions of immortal fame as a modern-day Islamic liberator of Jerusalem.
On the sidelines of the United Nations "Millennium" summit in New York on Wednesday, Arafat made clear in a meeting with Clinton that he would not succumb to mounting pressures to compromise his claims to permanent sovereignty over east Jerusalem and its Muslim and Christian holy sites, especially the disputed Temple Mount. Arafat's eagerly-awaited and defiant decision prompted the Clinton Administration to suspend any further efforts during the special UN opening session to bring Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak together for talks while both are in town.
Against the unprecedented backdrop of more than 150 heads of state rubbing shoulders at UN headquarters and nearby hotels, Clinton and Barak held out slim hopes that Arafat had finally softened his hard-line stand on Jerusalem due to their international lobbying efforts since the collapse of the Camp David summit in July. As the summit convened, Clinton took the podium to warn that the opportunity for concluding a landmark peace deal is "fleeting and about to pass."
Barak followed with an short address stressing the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people for 3000 years, while acknowledging the city "is also sacred to Muslims and Christians the world over, and cherished by our Palestinian neighbors. A true peace will reflect all these bonds," Barak assured the global forum. "Jerusalem will remain united and open to all who love her."
But when Arafat took the world stage, he did not reciprocate Barak's gesture, instead bemoaning the "Judaization of Jerusalem, land confiscation, and the building of Israeli illegal settlements, the siege of Bethlehem, and lack of implementation of agreements signed by Israel." Although the PLO leader referred to Jerusalem as the "cradle of Christ" and the point of Mohammed's ascension to heaven, he again failed to note any Jewish connection to the the city.
In his later meeting with Clinton, Arafat made "clear that we are not ready to make concessions on the issue of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem and on the issue of the Haram as-Sharif [Temple Mount]," according to Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath.
Arafat's abrasive public tone was the same throughout the week. Upon arrival on Tuesday, he growled to reporters: "I will not be flexible concerning the holy places because the holy places are not only Palestinian. It's Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim holy places, and everybody has to respect it."
Then, in an exclusive CNN interview aired on Friday, the aging Palestinian leader snapped: "You have to remember, you are speaking to Yasser Arafat. I will continue to liberate all the Islamic and Muslim holy places. If not, another one will come to liberate them," he said with rising anger. "I can't betray my people. I can't betray the Arabs. I can't betray the Christians. I can't betray the Muslims," he bristled.
When asked how he felt about being publicly blamed by Clinton for the deadlock in negotiations, Arafat responded, "This is not on my mind. It is part of the mass media propaganda."
Arafat appears willing to delay realization of a Palestinian state for the moment in hopes of also fulfilling his personal quest to enter Jerusalem at the head of a triumphant Palestinian and Muslim procession to pray at the Temple Mount once it is placed under his full control. Over the years, Arafat has mysteriously spoken of the city as his "destiny" and repeatedly depicted himself as a modern-day Saladin - a noted Muslim warlord who wrested control of Jerusalem from the Crusaders nearly 1000 years ago.
Arafat's obsession with Saladin is so complete, recent press reports indicate that the Palestinian-controlled Waqf has brought in Italian stonecutters to refurbish an elevated speaker's platform originally erected by Saladin on the Temple Mount, halfway between the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In addition, the Waqf hired skilled Egyptian craftsmen to build a replica ornate wooden pulpit used by Saladin to address his followers from the platform, and the speculation is the pulpit will only be unveiled when Arafat is able to come claim his coveted prize of "Al Quds."
On Thursday, Barak finally countered some of Arafat's recent distortions about the disputed holy sites, saying that "Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the cornerstones of Jewish identity. I made it very clear that no Israeli prime minister will ever be able to sign a document that will give up sovereignty on the Temple Mount." Barak continued, "now is not the time to rewrite the history of the three great monotheistic religions. I believe that the very word "Temple Mount" in every Western language carries the real story of this place. And when we think of Jesus Christ walking in the streets of Jerusalem when he was a young man, he could never see there either a mosque, not even a Christian church. What he would have seen was the Temple, the second Temple of the Jews."
In a related development, Israeli cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, part of Barak's delegation, met yesterday with the Vatican representative to the UN, who denied that Pope John Paul II had said that he views the Palestinians as the custodians of the holy places in Jerusalem. Melchior quoted the representative as saying that statements to the contrary made recently by Arafat are not accurate.
Barak also said he was pessimistic about prospects for a breakthrough, but added "we do have the feeling of very broad backing from the world's leaders." He clarified that he now objects to a partial agreement that would postpone dealing with the Jerusalem question until later.
Barak tried to preempt criticism at home, claiming that while he still did not have an "end of the conflict" agreement, his bold diplomatic initiative has borne fruit: the declaration of the Palestinian state has been postponed, international support is leaning in Israel's favor and a third IDF withdrawal is off the agenda. The post-summit spin, however, is flawed in that the worldwide backing Barak touts is personal to him and his concessionary government, not to the Israeli nation, and can be just as "fleeting" as the current chances for peace.
Barak noted the pressing time limits for a potential deal, in particular that the US Congress, which would have to approve billions of dollars in funding for a peace treaty, will adjourn in early October. Barak has his own time constraints, as the Knesset reconvenes in late October, after the Jewish High Holy Days, and will vote on whether he remains in office.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assessed on Thursday, "While there has been no breakthrough, there also is no breakdown... But the truth is, just look at the calendar. There is not a lot of time. And I think we are talking about the fact that there are a relative number of weeks here," she concluded on a down note.
Arafat is to leave on Friday for Gaza to brief the PLO's Central Committee on developments and conduct a vote on whether to proclaim a state next Wednesday or set a new date. A postponement is likely, since Arafat has been cautioned by many world leaders at the UN summit that unilateral steps would harm peace prospects. Barak repeated his warning yesterday that if Arafat unilaterally declared a state, Israel would consider taking its own unilateral steps and the situation could "deteriorate." Albright reaffirmed this week that Washington would not recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian state.
Acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami cautioned yesterday, "Our ability to stand by our national and unique interests require us today more than ever before to show strength and preparedness for the hour of confrontation as well, something which we do not want." He said that even if a solution is found for Jerusalem, other problems, such as that of the settlements, still abound. "In the end, I am confident that an agreement will be reached, but it may come only after another round of fighting," Ben-Ami intoned.
Equally expected were Palestinian threats of violence. "If the thieving Israelis continue holding on to our lands, another intifada awaits them - and worse things as well," warned PA secretary Abed El-Rahman in Gaza on Thursday.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.