JERUSALEM, July 10 (JTA) As Prime Minister Ehud Barak engages this week in Middle East summitry, there is one issue on which he can afford to make the fewest concessions: Jerusalem.
Struggling to hold together the vestiges of his governing majority before leaving for Camp David on Monday, Barak assured the nation on the eve of his departure that Jerusalem would remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty in any peace treaty with the Palestinians.
This, the premier declared in a live television appearance, was one of his guiding principles as he entered the historic and crucial negotiations.
Meanwhile, however, Israeli politicians and pundits were busily swapping what they considered reliable information about the concessions Barak is ready to make regarding Jerusalem and other key issues.
As evidence, they pointed to the premier’s reluctance to share his “red lines” or the limits of his negotiating stance with the leader of fervently Orthodox Shas Party.
Along with Shas officials, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party has complained that Barak has refused to share his negotiating plans with his coalition partners. On Sunday, Shas, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and the National Religious Party resigned from the government.
Barak’s office, however, maintained that, along with his Jerusalem stance, the premier made his other red lines abundantly clear during his televised address Sunday:
No return to the borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War;
No foreign army inside the West Bank;
The majority of Jewish settlers would live under Israeli sovereignty;
No acceptance by Israel of legal or moral responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Barak himself told the nation during the address that it would be prejudicial to the national interest for him to go into detail on any of the key points, beyond the carefully chosen words he had used.
Specifically, he declined to tell reporters whether he is ready to agree to Muslim and Christian control of their holy sites within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
However, a senior Israeli official presenting Barak’s negotiating stance did say that Barak would ensure that the Palestinians allow complete access to any Jewish holy places that may fall inside a future Palestinian state.
When Barak arrived Tuesday at Camp David, he was seriously weakened politically.
A day earlier, he survived a no-confidence motion in the Knesset but only barely.
Barak delayed his departure for the United States by several hours to participate in the Knesset session, during which the opposition Likud Party failed to muster the 61 votes needed to topple Barak’s government.
However, the opposition did receive more votes than the government. The final tally was 54 in favor of the no-confidence motion, 52 against and seven abstentions.
In a further blow, Foreign Minister David Levy on Sunday turned down an invitation to accompany Barak to the summit.
Levy, who has also raised reservations about the handling of the negotiations, did, however, vote with the government in Monday’s no-confidence motion.
Despite being left with a legislative minority of 42 as a result of the three parties’ defections, Barak told the Knesset on Monday he had an overwhelming mandate from the public to pursue the peace process.
“I am not going alone. With me are almost 2 million voters citizens who want peace, who want to give change a chance, and hope for a different Israel at peace with its neighbors,” he said.
Commentators said the resignations Sunday of the three coalition parties resulted from their unease over being associated with the still-unknown outcome of Camp David.
Jerusalem and the refugee issue are the two most intractable issues facing the two sides at the summit.
The fact that there will be some changes, though relatively small ones, in the pre-1967 lines is taken in Israel as a given. If Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat sticks to his public demand for a return to the 1967 boundaries, there will be no agreement.
It is also widely believed that the two sides have agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state and the stationing of Israeli troops at selected key points on the Jordan River.
Similarly, it is also believed that Israel will be able to annex three settlement blocs close to the old border although the Palestinians are said to be demanding compensatory slices of Israeli territory alongside the Gaza Strip.
This annexation was originally proposed in the “Beilin-Abu Mazen” agreement, an informal accord negotiated during 1995 between Yossi Beilin, now Barak’s justice minister, and Abu Mazen, Arafat’s second-in-command.
On Jerusalem, the Beilin-Abu Mazen accord envisaged a Palestinian capital, to be called “al-Quds” or “holy city,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem alongside the city’s present boundaries.
Those boundaries drawn up by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the wake of the 1967 war and subsequently proclaimed sovereign Israeli soil by the Knesset do not embrace important Palestinian suburbs such as Abu Dis, Azariya and a-Ram.
These areas, Beilin and Abu Mazen believed, could develop and become a credible Palestinian capital.
Since 1995, in a tacit recognition of the acceptability of the Beilin-Abu Mazen scheme, Israel has turned a blind eye to the Palestinians’ construction of a large and impressive building in Abu Dis that is intended to serve as their Parliament building.
Other civilian and official construction projects have continued in the Palestinian areas though not nearly as intensively as the Jewish residential construction in the ring of Jewish suburbs deliberately created in the 1970s and 1980s to encircle Jerusalem and effectively detach it from the West Bank.
The Palestinian position on the eve of the summit is that Beilin-Abu Mazen is deficient.
They insist on control of the Temple Mount and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. They also insist on control of Palestinian areas within Jerusalem that are close to the Old City walls such as Sheik Jarrah, the American Colony and Wadi Joz.
Informed Israeli observers said this week that while the question of sovereignty and flags over the Temple Mount is capable of resolution especially since Jewish religious law forbids entry onto the mount the question of sovereignty over the Palestinian areas within the city could prevent an agreement from being reached.
Unlike Abu Dis and Azariya, these areas within Jerusalem are more familiar to Jewish residents of Jerusalem, though much less so than before the 1987-1993 intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
These Israeli observers contend that even though the Palestinians are reluctant to admit it, they will concede that the Israeli areas in post-1967 eastern Jerusalem are there to stay as part of Israel. This applies to Pisgat Ze’ev, Neveh Ya’acov, Ramat Shafat, Ramot, French Hill, Ramot Eshkol, Gilo and the scene of the most recent controversy Har Homa.
It applies, too, to the large settlements just beyond Jerusalem: Ma’aleh Adumim to the east, Beit El to the north and the Gush Etzion bloc to the south.
The Palestinians must realize, say these observers, that no Israeli government could turn over any of these areas and hope to survive politically.
But the Palestinian negotiators are insisting that the Palestinian people live under their own sovereignty and this includes not only the 500,000 Palestinians living in the Greater Jerusalem area, but also the 180,000 who live within the present city limits.
Arafat wants the residents of Sheik Jarrah, for example, not only to vote for the Palestinian Parliament a right Israel has already recognized and to carry Palestinian passports, but to live on Palestinian sovereign soil.
But to carve up the city would flatly contradict Barak’s pledge of a “united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.”
Hence the intractability of the problem, despite the two sides’ purported pre-summit concessions.
A solution will require further flexibility and ingenuity if they are to emerge reasonably satisfied and with their respective declarations of unswerving allegiance to the Holy City intact.