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Non-negotiable’ Jerusalem is being negotiated

JERUSALEM, June 5 (JTA) — Commemorations marking Jerusalem Day went off as they usually do each year.

Israeli politicians made their solemn declarations on Sunday that the city will remain forever united under Israeli rule; young Jews, most of them Orthodox, marched through the city; Israeli police broke up altercations with Palestinian residents of the city, who felt no less than the marchers that the city belongs to them.

But while all seemed the same, a great deal was different when Jerusalem Day was marked last week.

Because this year, for the first time since the eastern portion of the city was liberated in 1967 by the Israeli army, the city’s future is on the negotiating table.

By all accounts, the negotiators — Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council — have made little progress on the issue of Jerusalem.

On Monday, in fact, Karia cited Jerusalem as one of the areas on which the parties are still far apart.

But the fact that they are publicly acknowledging that negotiations are under way — on one of the issues they have previously characterized as non-negotiable — is itself a major development.

Ordinary people are now confronting tangible evidence that the rhetoric of politicians on both sides — who use words like “eternal,” “exclusive” and “capital” — can harbor several levels of meaning.

On the Israeli side, people marking Jerusalem Day did so under the impression of media reports that proposals are on the table calling for a Palestinian flag to fly over the Al-Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and for the Palestinians to have municipal self-rule in portions of the city.

Israelis may not all agree with such proposals. But they can no longer delude themselves that the rhetoric of their political leaders truly reflects the diplomatic reality.

Similarly on the Palestinian side, people protesting on Jerusalem Day under banners calling for all of pre-1967 eastern Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state can hardly ignore the welter of media reports that Palestinian negotiators do in fact distinguish between Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the vast Jewish suburbs that have been built around Jerusalem since 1967.

Realistically, those suburbs are not part of the negotiations; they are to remain Israeli. Regarding the West Bank settlements, on the other hand, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak is clearly prepared to relinquish dozens of them in the context of a final peace accord.

Granted, there is no certainty that Israel and the Palestinians are on the verge of concluding such an agreement.

Some Israeli policy-makers predict that the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees will prove too intractable and that they will be suspended for several years to come — while all other matters, including borders, settlements and Palestinian sovereignty, are settled in the present talks.

Whatever the outcome of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to the region this week — or of the three-way summit that President Clinton hopes to hold by month’s end — Jerusalem is firmly on the table.

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