The writer holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He is author of a book on the Camp David accords
It is no secret that many people on the U.S. and Israeli negotiating teams arrived at Camp David assuming this about the Jerusalem issue: If Yasser Arafat was offered a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza and some control over Muslim holy sites and Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, he would be willing to accept Israeli legal sovereignty over the old city. It is hard to know how this impression was formed when conventional wisdom among most students of Arab and Palestinian politics was to the contrary.
It is certainly the case that one never truly knows the absolute bottom line of the other party until it is tested in negotiations, and it is always worth trying to push the limits. But the likelihood that there was much Palestinian flexibility on this issue of Jerusalem was always small, if one listened attentively to both sides. On the Israeli side, it was known that Ehud Barak could not sell an agreement that gave the Palestinians full sovereignty over the old city. Deadlock over Jerusalem sovereignty was thus the probable outcome. What contingency proposals were readied to avoid collapse when the parties reached that deadlock?
There are plenty of ideas that were not pursued creatively enough, the simplest of which was advocated by one of Barak’s ministers: postponing the question of sovereignty (translate: ownership of land and ultimate legal power) over the old city, while agreeing on very detailed practical arrangements on issues of daily life such as access to the city, religious authority, residency rights and municipal governance. A variation of this idea could even settle the question over sovereignty of some neighborhoods to allow each side to have its own capitol in Jerusalem while postponing sovereignty on the rest of the old city.
Such plans were discounted because it was believed that postponement would keep the conflict open. Barak needs “finality” with any agreement that contains major Israeli concessions. He needs to sell this agreement as the end of the conflict with Palestinians. Postponement of Jerusalem sovereignty is seen as prescription for future conflict. This need not be the case.
First, any agreement on the scale discussed has to bring finality to most issues. The most important finality Barak may be able to get is on other central issues such as settling the Palestinian refugee problem and closing the file of “return.” (More than 3 million refugees who fled Israel or were driven out in 1948 claim the right of return to Israel—something that no Israeli government is willing to accept because it would undermine Israel’s Jewish majority.) The parties would also agree on the permanent status of most Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Specific and permanent arrangements addressing Israeli security needs (such as demilitarization of a Palestinian state) is another area in which some “finality” can be attained.
Second, by agreement, the Palestinian state would end its conflict with Israel immediately and agree to resolve any remaining issues through diplomatic means only.
Third, to prevent disagreement regarding sovereignty over Jerusalem from igniting conflict again, the parties could agree that if they do not reach a negotiated agreement on this issue by some deadline, they will accept international arbitration.
Does this mean no risk of conflict in the future? No agreement is risk-free, even if the issue of Jerusalem is resolved. Certainly, Islamic groups, which are most likely to exploit the issue of Jerusalem, will oppose Israeli sovereignty over the city more than they will oppose postponement of the issue. The majority of Palestinians, who will have much to gain from the establishment of a Palestinian state—and from equitable practical changes in their daily life in Jerusalem—will then have much more to lose from conflict. And despite the risks of postponement, as was obvious in the case of implementing the Oslo accords, time heals more often than not: What is possible today between Israel and the Palestinians was not possible only months ago. No one can fault President Clinton for taking significant political risks to resolve one of this century’s most difficult international disputes. It is also obvious that Barak and Yasser Arafat are taking extraordinary personal risks in these negotiations: If they succeed they will face difficult battles against passionate opposition, and if they fail, their political careers may be doomed. But this extraordinary opportunity to clinch a deal must not be missed because no one could think outside the box.