“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.

But what does sovereignty express? Is it a sense of superiority, of one-upmanship? It may express that, especially among religious people on both sides. But mainly it is about the ability to say, “This is ours, and it is not yours.” Indeed I believe that the claims to sovereignty over the Temple Mount mean just that: an entitlement to say, “It’s ours,” while no one else is entitled to say the same thing. (Joint sovereignty, which I and others have advocated, would mean that each side would indeed be entitled to say, “It’s ours,” while no one would also be entitled to say, “And it’s not yours.”* )

But surely, you might object, the content of sovereignty can’t be reduced to a kindergarten exchange like that. Well, yes and no. In one sense, to say, “It’s ours,” is the only content of this sovereignty being claimed over the Temple Mount. But in another sense, it is only the beginning of a long story. Jews in Israel, both religious and secular, are addicted to simple, emotional metaphors for Jerusalem. Not only is it said to be the “heart” of the Jewish people, it is the “seat” of the nation’s soul. But it must be a sort of heavenly Jerusalem they have in mind here, because most Israelis live outside Jerusalem and do not really know—and when they are there they can hardly stand—the earthly, squalid Jerusalem that I, a Jerusalemite all my life, passionately love.

For many secular Jews, including Barak, I suspect, Jerusalem stands for something “higher.” They do not mean that it is higher in the religious sense that the spirit of a higher being is present there; they see the place as an embodiment of idealism and willingness to sacrifice. It is the ultimate contrast to the hedonistic, promiscuous life of Tel-Aviv. “To lose Jerusalem” is to lose the last bastion of Zionist idealism, the belief in things worth sacrificing your life for, and to accept a permissive, materialistic existence. “To lose Jerusalem,” in the symbolic act of giving up sovereignty in Jerusalem, means giving up on “values” and succumbing to the debased ideas of calculating liberals, who know the price of everything but the value of nothing—especially not the value of Jewish history. There are many things that people are willing to put up with as long as they are not asked to put them in writing. Barak has a passion for clarity; he forces both sides to put down in writing things that up to now they were grudgingly willing to live with. But then Barak, too, has to put his signature to the written words.

The political question about the devotion to Jerusalem-as-the-heart is not how thin it is spiritually but how deep-seated it is psychologically. It is powerful enough on both sides—for the Palestinians have their own picture of the city—to be capable of blocking an agreement. On the face of it there is nothing deeper in Zionism than the notion of Jerusalem as the heart. The very name “Zionism” comes from the poetic Biblical name of Jerusalem, “Zion.” But in fact modern political Zionism had a far more complicated attitude toward Jerusalem and toward the ancient symbols in general.

Modern Zionists did not enter the Promised Land the way the Biblical Israelites did. They came from the West, not from the East. The Zionist settlements were not on the hills of the Biblical land. They settled along the Mediterranean shores, where the Philistines once lived. Even today some 80 percent of the Jewish population of Israel lives in the coastal plains and not in the Jewish territories of the Bible. The early Zionists in fact studiously avoided the holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron, and in general they avoided the parts of the Land of Israel that had specific symbolic meaning. They were both attracted and repelled by the symbols. They wanted to create a modern society and not to be overwhelmed by the ancient, biblical past. Their solution was to live near the symbolic places, not in them.

The Jerusalem I grew up in was West Jerusalem; not far from East Jerusalem with its Old City walls and Temple Mount and the other symbolic places, but not very close to them either. Between 1948 and 1967 this was the only Jerusalem Israel had. But after the Six-Day War of 1967 a new form of fundamentalism emerged. Both national and religious in its character, it was inspired by the desire to possess the symbolic places of the past, while basically giving up the aspiration of building a new society for the Jews. Symbols are ancient, but fundamentalism based on the need to live close to them is new, and I am not sure how deep it is among secular Jews. Very few Jews visit the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, yet only 38 percent of Israelis, according to a reliable recent poll, are willing to hand over those Arab neighborhoods to a Palestinian sovereign authority. And this finding does not even begin to touch attitudes concerning the core issue of Jerusalem—the Old City. On this we have no polling data about the attitudes of secular Jews. But we should assume that considerably fewer than 38 percent would now want to give up part of it. Even so, we do not know whether the position of most Jews is an extreme position that is weakly held, and therefore possibly susceptible to change.


Barak came to power a year ago after receiving 56 percent of the vote, a very strong majority in Israel, while his party did very poorly. It won only 26 seats of the 120 in the Knesset. This number includes the two Levy brothers, former Likud politicians who became fellow travelers of Barak but deserted him when he went to Camp David. Ben-Gurion and Rabin were in their time backed in the Knesset by a forty-five-member delegation. Barak’s drive for peace with the Palestinians is as ambitious as was De Gaulle’s policy on Algiers. But Barak took this initiative himself, working within a political system that is more akin to that of the divided French Fourth Republic than to the authoritarian Fifth Republic that De Gaulle constructed before he launched his bold Algerian move.

Barak believed, and he may still believe, that he can disregard the parliament, strike a deal with the Palestinians by making them an offer they cannot refuse, and then go straight to the Israeli public and, on the strength of the deal, win a referendum irrespective of the balance of power in the Knesset. The idea behind this scheme is that if he makes clear that the agreement satisfies him—with his reputation as Mr. Security—it will carry the popular vote.

Barak made two election promises. The first was to withdraw the Israeli army from southern Lebanon within a year of taking office. He kept this promise on time and, so far, successfully. His second promise was “to leave no stone unturned” in his effort to pursue peace with Syria and with the Palestinians. He turned first to Syria, and came very close to reaching an agreement with the late President Assad. But Assad not only insisted on getting the Golan Heights back, a demand Barak was ready to comply with. Assad also wanted to gain access to the Sea of Galilee, on whose shores he used to barbecue fish during his youth. Barak recoiled from this demand, knowing that the Sea of Galilee, while not Israel’s “heart,” is seen as something like Israel’s bathtub. The idea of a bullying neighbor putting a foot in the tub was for most Israelis, Barak knew, just too much.

For my part, I believe that peace with Syria is still within reach. But Barak succeeded in convincing the Israeli public and, not less important, President Clinton as well, that he did indeed go as far as he could in trying to make a deal with Syria. And so he turned to the possibility of a deal with the Palestinians, who announced they would proclaim their own state unilaterally if no deal was made.

When Barak came to power he formed an incoherent coalition government that included the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, with seventeen Knesset seats; the liberal and aggressively secular Meretz party, with ten seats; the nationalist party of Russian immigrants led by Natan Sharansky and the ultra-nationalist National Religious Party with five seats each; and the six members of the mild Center Party. It took no time for Shas and Meretz to be at each other’s throats. The Meretz leaders in the cabinet insisted on “clean” government, and Shas insisted on its right to receive constant bribes from the state in the form of subsidies and special privileges. The Meretz leaders were expected to deal with the corrupt mismanagement of Shas’s school system, a task that was bound to cause offense to Shas leaders. The sums of money involved in paying off Shas are trifling in view of the need to keep Shas—or, more importantly, its domineering spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—in the government coalition.

Barak gambled on Rabbi Ovadia’s reputation as a dove, and believed that he could count on him to tame his hawkish constituency, whose members tend to have hostile attitudes toward Arabs. However, if Ovadia Yosef was politically mild and reasonable in the past, here is what he said in his Sabbath sermon on August 6: “Where are this man’s [Barak’s] brains? He runs after them [the Palestinians] like someone running amok. Why are you [Barak] bringing them close to us? You bring snakes next to us. How can you make peace with a snake?”

Shas, the Russian party, and the National Religious Party—three parties that had previously belonged to Netanyahu’s coalition—dropped out of Barak’s government when he headed for Camp David. Meretz also left the government, in a futile attempt to improve Barak’s relations with Shas. And so when Barak left for the Camp David summit, he was, as Nahum Barnea, the foremost Israeli journalist, put it, like Gary Cooper in High Noon: lonely, determined, and brave.

At the end of the summit, when it became clear that the two sides would not reach an agreement, Barak’s supporters took comfort in the belief that he succeeded at least in achieving a result that was second best. There was no recrimination and no bad blood between Barak and Arafat; there had been much progress in clarifying hard issues such as compensation for refugees, and some hope for an agreement. But immediately upon his return Barak suffered humiliating defeats in the Knesset at the hands of the former Netanyahu coalition, including the rejection of Shimon Peres in the vote for president. Peres lost to the candidate of the right wing, a pedestrian Likud politician. The vote was perceived as directed more against Barak than against Peres.

In view of such weakness, can Barak conclude an agreement with Arafat while Clinton is still in office? Or is he like Victor Hugo’s Napoleon, a mighty somnambulist who has lost touch with reality? The immediate question is whether he can reach an agreement with Arafat, especially over Jerusalem, in the coming three months. That’s about all the time Barak has; and an agreement over Jerusalem will involve more than two parties. It will have to have support in the so-called Arab world, and, more specifically, from Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. An agreement means a compromise by both sides on the issue of sovereignty in Jerusalem. According to the American “bridge proposal,” for example, sovereignty over the Old City will be divided: the Palestinians will have sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters and Israel will have sovereignty over the Jewish and Armenian quarters. The Temple Mount will be subject to a complicated custodian arrangement, with participation both by the UN and a representative of the Islamic world. The outer Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be under the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority and the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty. The question of Jerusalem has to do quite as much with the Islamic-Arabic national “soul” as it does the Jewish national “soul.”

Understanding what the different sides mean by national “soul” is a complex historical and cultural matter. But I believe that there is an underlying consideration that will deeply influence whether a compromise on preserving the two souls can be worked out. Peace in the Middle East, peace between Israel and the Arab regimes, will be a peace of the Mukhabarat—the Arabic term for state security and intelligence organizations, whether internal or external security.

The main concern of the Mukhabarat in each country is any activity of its citizens that might threaten the regime’s power, and the result of its surveillance is tight control of civil society. Most of the Arab governments—including those in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq—are Mukhabarat regimes whose main raison d’être is the stability of their society and their own survival. Not every repressive regime in the region is a Mukhabarat regime. Iran, for example, is a repressive theocracy that ousted the Mukhabarat (“Savak”) regime of the Shah. And there are obvious differences among Mukhabarat regimes—between, say, Iraq and Jordan—in the sophistication of their leaders and the degrees of brutality and repression they are willing to apply. A Mukhabarat regime is by no means a Mukhabarat society: the societies in question are too rich, complex, and varied simply to be identified with the regimes in power. But decisions about relations with Israel will be subject to the approval of the people who control “security.”

My own belief is that each of the Mukhabarat regimes in the region has decided, for its own good Mukhabarat reasons of survival and stability—for which each of them now needs strong US support—in favor of coming to terms with the State of Israel. Egypt and Jordan have already negotiated their own terms, on the understanding that the future of Jerusalem remains to be negotiated with the Palestinians. Whether privately or in public, Syria and the Palestinian Authority are negotiating now. Any peace of the Mukhabarat is a cold peace between states, not between peoples. It is not a pretty peace, but it is a lot better than war with the Mukhabarat.

Israel is by no means a Mukhabarat state. But for many years, until the Oslo agreements of 1993, Israel ran a Mukhabarat occupation regime over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Mukhabarat establishments of the Arab states and especially of the Palestinian Authority find the Israeli Mukhabarat officials from the various security services the easiest to talk to among the Israelis. Indeed, Barak brought many of them with him to Camp David.

However, all the Mukhabarat regimes in the region, under heavy pressure from the radical Islamic movements, are now also in a desperate search for a “soul.” If for the Jews the icon of Jerusalem is to be found in the Old City walls and the Tower of David, for the Muslims it is the shining golden Dome of the Rock. As an icon, the Dome is a perfect fusion of religion and nationalism, since it is strongly associated, in Muslim minds, with Saladin’s chivalrous liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. In the Islamic-Arabic mind the invading Jewish Zionists are the modern version of the Crusaders. To regain sovereignty over Jerusalem, and especially over the sanctuary containing the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, would mean that the Arabs have scored an important victory over the Zionist crusaders.

For the Mukhabarat regimes, Jerusalem is too powerful a symbol to be abandoned to their rivals, the Islamic movements who are themselves high on “soul.” They, and particularly Egypt, the most important power in the region, are currently in a double bind, caught between their need not to antagonize President Clinton so as to get American support and their desire for “soul”—or at least for some strong connection with Muslim symbols—in their competition with the Islamists. After all, Mubarak’s predecessor, President Sadat, was assassinated by the Islamists over the issue of peace with Israel. An editorial in Ha’aretz on August 14 points out the contradiction in Mubarak’s position. In an interview with the Cairo weekly Roz al Yousef Mubarak said: “Even Arafat wouldn’t dare sign an agreement that includes relinquishing the Islamic holy places.” But in the same interview he also says that if Arafat is asked to make a concession on Jerusalem, Egypt won’t stand in his way, “if that’s the will of the Palestinian people.” Even if, under pressure from Clinton, Egypt and the other regimes in the region abstain from fighting for regained sovereignty over the Temple Mount, they can hardly be expected to help Clinton in persuading Arafat to compromise over it. And Arafat sometimes seems to harbor Saladin-like fantasies of his own.

Arafat knows all too well that he may never get another offer like the one (amended by Clinton) that he got from Barak at the Camp David summit. He also knows that without a deal, Barak is likely to lose power; so Arafat would then have to deal instead with Netanyahu or Ehud Olmert, the current Likud mayor of Jerusalem, who may emerge as the next prime minister. The stakes for Arafat are high: he might achieve a Palestinian state recognized by the world and supported by the US before long. Still, Jerusalem might turn out to be an insurmountable sacred stumbling rock. Barak’s efforts to reach an agreement face tough odds. But then Barak’s entire career is built on winning against tough odds.

Jerusalem, August 24, 2000

This Issue

September 21, 2000