Skip to main content
Op-Ed

There Is Still a Way to Get Barak and Arafat to Agree on Jerusalem

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

The debate on the failure of the Camp David Summit goes like this: We expected Yasser Arafat to accept Israeli sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem—even though most experts believed he couldn’t. He didn’t, despite courageous concessions by Ehud Barak, therefore, Arafat is intransigent, and responsible for the failure. The task now is to pressure him publicly to come around.

We would be making the same mistake we made at the outset of the summit if we did not begin by questioning our own assumptions. First, give Barak some credit; it does him no service at home arguing that he gave a lot but received little. Certainly, he displayed extraordinary leadership in going beyond any Israeli leader in offering compromise. But, even without Jerusalem, he received significant Palestinian concessions on two of the most emotional issues for the Palestinians: The refugee problem, and the status of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. No issue has caused more confrontation and conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the past three decades than Jewish settlements, which were violently opposed by Palestinians as illegal.

The reported Palestinian concession included the annexation of most settlers and the settlements on which they live into Israel. The refugee question, and the “right of return” to Israel have been the most passionate issues for Palestinians since 1948, and to this day many find it impossible to compromise on them.

Barak reportedly got Arafat to accommodate Israel on this issue by settling the file of claims with actual return of only a symbolic number of refugees. For this alone, Arafat may face insurmountable obstacles. Second, the proposition that accepting Israeli sovereignty over the Old City was merely a function of Arafat’s personal preferences, or leadership quality, is perplexing. Certainly, he had to be concerned about going home with a deal on Jerusalem that collapsed on him, to the detriment of everyone but the militants. If there is one accusation Arafat could not survive politically (and maybe personally) it is that he was the Arab leader to “sell” Jerusalem.

Consider how he can sell Israeli sovereignty over the Old City at home—or not. First he has to sell the painful agreement on the refugee issue. One can imagine him making a speech about the need for two states, one of which must be Jewish and that this, therefore, precludes the return of the majority of Arab refugees.

His speech will be violently rejected by many, but hopefully garner majority support. He will try to sell Israeli annexation of most settlers on the grounds that it is impossible to evacuate more than a hundred thousand people, or to bring them under Palestinian sovereignty. Even the inclusion of the settlement of Maali Adomim—which splits the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, and thus limits the contiguity of a Palestinian state—into Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, he may be able to sell under the same principle. He can make a strong argument for Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods and religious sights that were under Arab control until 1967, using similar logic. How does he then explain Israeli sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem or over Muslim religious sights which were occupied in 1967?

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the passion for Jerusalem is bigger than the passion for Palestine. The Palestinians were once the darlings of a pan-Arab movement that no longer exists, but lost much affinity after the 1990 Gulf war. Jerusalem is the biggest Palestinian bond to the rest of the Muslim and the Arab world, and if Arafat is perceived to betray it, he could face massive opposition.

There is a sense in the American debate that Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, did not do enough to encourage Arafat to make concessions on Jerusalem. They, too, have to worry about their own opposition if they were perceived to support an agreement that “sold out” Jerusalem. The United States and the Palestinians must work hard to make sure there is broad support for a deal, especially Saudi Arabia.

But it is not enough to get a yellow light or general promises of support; specific commitments over the details of a Jerusalem agreement must be sought before a deal is signed. On the eve of the first Camp David summit between Egypt and Israel in 1978, President Carter believed that he had direct assurances from Saudi Arabia to support the deal. But once the details of the Egyptian-Israeli agreements were known, and once negative Arab reactions mounted, the Saudis found that they could not support the Accords. Egypt, the biggest and most powerful Arab state was left hanging for a decade, and the courageous Anwar Sadat paid with his life. A tiny fledgling Palestinian state cannot afford the same fate.

There is still an opportunity to make a deal, since significant progress was made at the summit, and since Arafat and Barak are much better off agreeing than fighting. But any deal must address what Barak and Arafat need most: not being perceived by majorities of their own people as selling out on Jerusalem. This requires one or both of them to move from their current positions, but ultimately, they should be helped by the United States, not pressured.

The public pressure strategy is odd: if Arafat is limited from compromising by worries about passionate public reaction, how does it help him to make it seem that he is caving in to U.S. pressure? Certainly, leadership means taking the right decisions even when you know that you will have strong opposition. But it would be foolish to make decisions that will be rejected passionately by majorities. Barak and Arafat must both be allowed to make the final judgement on the latter. It is their necks that are on the line.

Get daily updates from Brookings