As Rhetoric on Jerusalem Heated Up, Peres Letter to Arafat is Made Public

As the rhetoric over the status of Jerusalem heated up this week, it emerged that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres sent Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat a letter last fall promising that Israel would respect Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem.

Several weeks after the signing of the declaration of principles last September in Washington, Peres sent the letter to Johan Jorgen Holst, the late Norwegian foreign minister who was instrumental in hosting the secret Oslo talks that led to the historic signing.

At the time, Peres had asked Holst to give the letter to Arafat.

In the letter, Peres referred to a speech he made in the Knesset on Sept. 9, when there was much euphoria surrounding the Oslo agreement that formed the basis of the declaration of principles.

In that speech, Peres said Israel “would bind itself to ensuring the proper functioning of the various religious institutions” in Jerusalem.

He also said in the Knesset speech that mutual respect would be required of all communities in Jerusalem if they were to live together in harmony — which would also mean respecting “religious, social and other institutions” and tolerating separate educational frameworks.

This week, Rabin gave notice that Israel will not tolerate the establishment of new Palestinian autonomous institutions in Jerusalem.

An Israeli official close to the peace process reiterated Rabin’s position, saying Peres’ letter related only to Palestinian institutions that were in existence last September.

What Israel objects to today, he said, is the establishment of any new Palestinian political institutions in Jerusalem.

“We won’t allow that,” the official said.

THE THORNIEST ISSUE

Last year, Arafat requested the letter as a weapon with which to fight for the preservation of the Palestinian status quo in Jerusalem when the issue comes up for discussion in two years.

At that point, the parties are to negotiate a permanent arrangement for the autonomous Palestinian entity. The status of Jerusalem is certain to be the thorniest issue at those discussions.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the official denied that there were any secret annexes to the agreement Israel made at the time with the PLO.

The letter, he said, referred to a Knesset speech, which is a matter of public record.

Arafat revealed the existence of the letter during the course of a speech he gave in a mosque in Johannesburg last month. In that speech, Arafat had called for a jihad — an Arabic term generally translated in English as meaning a holy war — to regain control over Jerusalem.

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