The Odds Against Barak


“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.