Arab Americans Challenge Israel’s Claim to Jerusalem

A new ad hoc group of Arab American organizations and leaders is waging a national education campaign on Jerusalem, arguing that sovereignty over Jerusalem must be shared with the Palestinians in order to achieve an enduring peace.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Committee on Jerusalem is pressing what it calls the mainstream Arab American position on Jerusalem.

“We believe strongly that there can be no monopoly on sovereignty over Jerusalem by either party if there is to be a just and lasting peace,” said Raafat Dajani, coordinator of the ACJ and a member of the American Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee.

The two organizations operate out of the same office complex but are considered independent.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the key issues to be addressed in the final status talks between Israeli and Palestinians that are expected to begin in earnest after Israel’s May 29 elections.

Israeli officials have stated that the entire city must remain the undivided capital of the sovereign Jewish state. Palestinian negotiators argued that eastern Jerusalem, with a heavy Arab population, must serve as the capital of a new Palestinian state.

While these positions appear intractable, ACJ members see room for compromise.

According to Khalil Jahsan, a member of ACJ’s board of directors, the prevailing opinion among mainstream Arab Americans is that Jerusalem should not be redivided. They envision a united city serving as a capital for both Israel and an emerging state of Palestine.

Sovereignty would be shared and the city would be split into two boroughs – eastern and western Jerusalem – with independent city councils managed by a joint mayoral council of Israelis and Palestinians, said Jahsan, who is also executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans.

“There is widespread support for this” position in the organized Arab American community, Jahsan said. “This seems to be the least common denominator in terms of Israelis and Palestinians.

“If Israel wants sovereignty over East Jerusalem, Palestinians must have some sovereignty over West Jerusalem,” Jahsan said.

ACJ was established last September as a non-profit organization with an initial budget of $150,000. By producing resource materials, organizing seminars and planning for a possible conference in June, the Arab organization is targeting the American public and U.S. government on Jerusalem-related matters.

The committee claims that in the past information on Jerusalem has been supplied almost exclusively by the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States.

“We provide the other side of the argument,” said Dajani. “We’re saying that Muslims, Christians and Palestinians have an equally valid claim and in some cases longer historical and religious claims to Jerusalem then Jews.”

ACJ is directed by a board of governors that includes Jahsan, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslims Councils, and AAADC president Hala Maksoud. The committee’s president is Rashid Khalidi, a professor at the University of Chicago.

“The odds are stacked against the Palestinians across the board in this peace process,” said Jahsan, whose NAAA has lobbied Congress on related issues for years.

Jahsan charged that worldwide celebrations this year of Jerusalem 3000, touting Jewish heritage in Jerusalem, were designed to preempt negotiations. In addition, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill last year to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel’s eternal capital.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it tool,” Jahsan said of the United States, which also is the main mediator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Although ACJ has not taken a formal stand on Jahsan’s shared sovereignty proposal, Dajani said the committee could support such a compromise. However, he departed from that position when pressed on whether eastern Jerusalem would be part of Israel.

“That depends on how you define Jerusalem,” Dajani said. He considered eastern Jerusalem not as a part of Israel but as land “occupied” by the Jewish state.

“This territory has to be returned to people it was forcefully seized from.”

Current Israeli maps of Jerusalem depict both eastern and western Jerusalem as part of one city.

While Prime Minister Shimon Peres said “Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel,” Dajani claimed there might be room for compromise because the Israeli leader does not define the borders from “point A to point B.”

“The actual `all of Jerusalem’ has not been precisely defined,” he said.

Gadi Baltiansky, press counselor at the Israeli embassy, said there is no ambiguity in the prime minister’s position.

“We are talking about the current borders of Jerusalem under Israeli law, which encompasses eastern Jerusalem,” he said. “There is no gray area. Jerusalem is one city and it will not be divided.”

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