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The Odds Against Barak

1.

The two sides just could not get there,” President Clinton said in July after two sleepless weeks of intense negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians at Camp David. Now we know. The “there” is Jerusalem, and the two sides could not agree on sovereignty within it and over it.

The hundred-year conflict,” as Ehud Barak describes it, shrunk at Camp David to its core. According to reliable reports, the core now concerns neither the Palestinian refugees nor the Jewish settlers. It does not involve the issues of security or water. It is Jerusalem. Even to say “Jerusalem” is to say too much. Jerusalem today consists of 40,000 acres, with eighteen Arab villages and many Arab neighborhoods. Once Barak broke the Israeli taboo against discussing Jerusalem, and appeared to be willing to hand over sovereignty on some parts of the city populated by Palestinians, it became quite clear that the core issue is not sovereignty within Jerusalem, but only over the tiny part of it—220 acres—that is called the Old City. And in the Old City, the main disagreement is over who will have sovereignty over the Temple Mount—the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, with the Western Wall, sacred to Jews, at the bottom, and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims, on top.

Arafat, Barak, and Clinton emerged from Camp David as scholars emerge from a conference on analytic philosophy—with no solution, but with a sense of greater conceptual clarity. In the case of Barak, the craving for clarity was a strong motive to force the meeting at Camp David on the skeptical Clinton and the reluctant Arafat. He did it not only because it is his temperament to define accurately what the conflict was about, but also for serious strategic reasons. Barak is a critic of the “salami” strategy of Rabin’s Oslo agreement. For him, the Oslo deal meant yielding one territory after another to the Palestinians, buying time without knowing whether this would lead to the end of the conflict. Barak is determined to change the order of things: first to define in clear terms an overall agreement that will specify what the end of the conflict will look like and then to carry it out in stages. Thus his tolerance for vagueness and for “creative ambiguities” is low, and his need for clarity is strong.

At the same time that Jerusalem was emerging as the central subject of negotiation, it also became very obscure indeed just what issue was at stake concerning Jerusalem. Calling the issue “sovereignty” is just giving it a name, not understanding it. Sovereignty involves three different sets of issues: political, municipal-administrative, and religious. The political issue is whether Jerusalem can be the capital of the Palestinian state. Can the Palestinian parliament be in Jerusalem? This issue is not intractable. The Palestinians have already built their parliament building in Abu-Dis, one of the Arab villages bordering on East Jerusalem, with the tacit consent of the Israelis. The Israelis will not refer to this village as Jerusalem, but the Palestinians might. The municipal issue is how to run daily life in the city of Jerusalem, given that it will include the territory of two states. In a sense there is currently already a functional de facto division of labor in Jerusalem: Israel takes care of the Jewish neighborhoods in the city, and the Palestinian Authority takes care of the Arab neighborhoods. In any event both sides agree that Jerusalem shall be a free city, not to be physically divided, and that there should be freedom of movement for all. It was not the municipal-administrative issue that stood in the way of the negotiators at Camp David, but the religious-symbolic one. How does one divide a symbol?

To say that Jerusalem is the core issue certainly does not mean that all the other issues were solved at Camp David. It merely expresses the view, which seems agreed on among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, that once the issue of Jerusalem is solved, the rest—such as the process of Israeli withdrawal, the future of the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian refugees, the water supply, and the military status of a Palestinian state—will fall into place much more easily.

Barak apparently concluded that it will take three distinct steps to settle the conflict: (a) an agreement between himself and Arafat; (b) ratification of the agreement in Israel either by a referendum or by the declaration of new elections that will be fought on the issue of the agreement; (c) carrying out the agreement. Barak believes that meeting the first concern—concluding an agreement—will create enough momentum to overcome the difficulties with the other two. I doubt it.

Arriving at an agreed text is still within the sphere of what might be called postmodern politics—i.e., the two sides negotiate not only over physical arrangements but also over the “narratives” and respective symbols they will present as the truly meaningful reality. Indeed there is already a postmodern sense of unreality about the negotiations. Barak has, in effect, been saying, “You (the Palestinians) will accept our (Israel’s) sovereignty over the Temple Mount, but you will still administer the place, as you currently do, without any intervention from us.” Similarly, Arafat has been saying, “You (the Israelis) will accept, as an act of atonement, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return; but we won’t ask you to take in any serious number of refugees.”

So the first concern is to find a verbal agreement. The harsh realities will come into the picture only as the agreements start being carried out. After all, so far only Begin and Sharon showed they could destroy Jewish settlements and evacuate their settlers. No one from Labor—whether Rabin, Peres, or Barak—has yet been able to remove a single settler from the occupied territories. It might turn out to be very difficult indeed.

But the difficulty for now is to agree on the symbols and stories of each side. These are pretty much confined to the area within the magnificent walls, built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, that encircle the Old City of today. The Old City of Jerusalem consists of four districts named after the faith of their inhabitants: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian. The walled city, with four quarters like the four chambers of the heart, helps to sustain the popular metaphor of Jerusalem as the “heart of the Jewish people.”

Inside the Old City we find the contested sanctuary of the Temple Mount. In the Jewish sacred geography, this is the holiest place on earth, the site on which the First and the Second Temples stood. As for worship, the most important place of worship for the Jews is the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”), which is located just outside and below the Temple Mount sanctuary. In the Muslims’ sacred geography, one finds within the sanctuary the sacred rock, the fabled foundation stone of the world, above which stands the architectural masterpiece the Dome of the Rock. For Muslims, in the pecking order of holiness, the Rock is the second most sacred spot in the universe, the first being the Qaaba in Mecca. As a place of worship, the Al-Aqsa Mosque within the sanctuary is the third most important mosque in the Islamic world, after those in Mecca and Medina. So we could say that the “core” of the conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs is the issue of sovereignty over the Temple Mount. To have “sovereignty” over the Temple Mount implies no practical difference on the ground. The Palestinians preside over its administration now and will continue to do so. But it makes all the difference in the world, or in the other-world, for the two contesting sides.

After the conquest of the Old City by the Israeli army in 1967, the army’s Chief Rabbi at the time, the zealot Shlomo Goren, went to the Temple Mount to blow a shofar celebrating the city’s salvation. The quick-eyed Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, saw that this provocation to the Muslim world had the potential for igniting a colossal religious war with the Islamic world; he ordered that the Israeli flag be removed from the Dome of the Rock and that the Muslim authority, the Waqf, which was then under Jordanian control, be put in charge of the Temple Mount. He may not have been aware that a much greater Moshe had long before deflated the explosive potential of the Temple Mount for conflict between the two religions. Moshe Ben-Maimon, known to the world as Maimonides, after visiting the Temple Mount in 1165, ruled that after the ancient Temple was destroyed, its “primary holiness” still existed and remained valid for generations to come. Since only purified priests were allowed in certain parts of the Temple before the destruction, and since no one today is pure in the required sense anyway, no Jew should, he said, be allowed to walk through the entire Temple Mount lest he unwittingly transgress the holy, forbidden zones. This ruling was and is accepted by almost all Orthodox Jews, apart from the tiny—yet potentially dangerous—group called the Temple Mount Faithful. They believe they know how to avoid transgressing the forbidden zones.

Therefore the current situation is that Muslims run the Temple Mount administratively and Jews, for both religious and prudential reasons, shy away from it. How then has the issue of sovereignty over the place become such an intractable and explosive issue? Why should it be the case that the more the idea of sovereignty over the Temple Mount is devoid of practical consequences, the more the conflict over it becomes intractable?

Since the city was reunited in 1967, almost every Israeli leader has repeated the mantra “Jerusalem, the one indivisible eternal capital of the Jewish people.” The attributes of “one,” “indivisible,” and “eternal” are of course attributes of God, not of an earthly city. But there is nothing new in the use of these religious attributes for nationalist purposes. The French constitution of 1791 says “sovereignty is one: indivisible, inalienable and irrevocable [imprescriptible]: it belongs to the nation.”

The competition between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem is a manifestation of this blend of nationalism and religion. A religion that is not backed by a nation has no chance of competing successfully in Jerusalem. For Christianity, sacred history and sacred geography are deeply rooted in Jerusalem. It is the only religion of the three that originated in the Holy Land. The Pope’s immensely impressive recent visit in the Holy Land made it clear to the others that Christianity has strong claims of its own. The Holy Sepulcher, alleged to be the location of the tomb of Christ, is also inside the Old City walls. But since the Pope has no national armed divisions there, the other two parties believe that he can be safely ignored. The conflict between them in Jerusalem is not religious; it is a national conflict, one that is sustained by religious symbols. And the prize is sovereignty.

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