Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Building on Camp David

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The Camp David summit was meant to produce a final agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, or at least the principal guidelines according to which such an agreement would be finalised. With that in mind, the negotiating parties agreed that any partial agreements reached would be valid only in the event of an overall agreement. Following the failure of the summit, all partial agreements were accordingly considered null and void. That is not to say, however, that the summit was a waste of time. There is no denying that significant headway was made. For the first time, the parties engaged in face-to-face talks at the highest level on the most intractable issues between them, including Jerusalem, refugees and final borders. As a headline in the Herald Tribune put it: "Nothing was achieved, yet all has changed".

One indication of this change is the obvious desire of the parties not to concede defeat. Despite Clinton's announcement that the 14-day meeting had failed, all the parties were careful to play down the significance of the failure and underscore the progress achieved. There is a deliberate attempt to keep the mood upbeat by portraying the failure as a repeat performance of the earlier breakdown of the summit which lasted only a few hours before the parties agreed to resume talks. The failure this time is more dramatic, but not essentially different from the previous one. In this case, the parties will have the opportunity to touch base, as it were, before deciding on their next move.

But if they want to capitalise on the positive momentum generated at Camp David they will have to move soon. Moreover, there is the political calendar to consider. An important date here is 13 September, the expiry date of the Oslo accord. Its original 5-year term has already been extended for two years, but whether the Israelis like it or not, this time they will have to contend with the possibility of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood -- although, unlike Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which it effected without consulting even its allies, Arafat has promised to declare a Palestinian state "at the appropriate time" and after consulting "parties friendly to the Palestinians."

That is why all the parties are keen to achieve progress before the 13 September deadline to avoid an escalation of unilateral measures and counter-measures that could expose the whole peace process to total collapse.

Interestingly, the impact of the Camp David failure has not been the same for the two parties. Received back home as a hero for having withstood pressure to compromise on the critical issue of Jerusalem, the weaker leader, Arafat, has seen his position strengthened, while the stronger leader, Barak, has seen his weakened. Many Israelis consider that the concessions he made in Camp David went beyond the red lines he had committed himself never to cross, and that if the deal fell through it was thanks to Arafat, not to Barak.

Clinton praised Barak for his courage, his farsightedness and his deep understanding of the issues involved. He blamed Arafat for not "having taken the last mile" and for not having risen to the level of the opportunity. But what Clinton considered praise for Barak was seen by a variety of opposition forces in Israel as an extra reason to criticise him violently and to try to overthrow his coalition government, while the blame he directed at Arafat was seen by Palestinian constituencies as confirmation of their leader's steadfast refusal to sell out their cause, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem.

It is now common knowledge that the main sticking point at Camp David was the future status of the city. Indeed, Jerusalem has always been such a sensitive issue that discussions touching on its status have been systematically postponed in all previous rounds of negotiations and left to the final stage talks. It was unrealistic to expect that an issue that could not be resolved over decades could be settled in a matter of days.

We are thus faced with an impasse. For the partial agreements reached in Camp David to become valid, an overall agreement must be finalised. Obviously, this must include agreement on the future status of Jerusalem, an issue impossible to solve in a few days. In other words, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute can only be settled if the parties can reach agreement on this apparently insurmountable problem. As this is unlikely to happen in the short period left for Clinton in the White House, sustaining the momentum established at Camp David might require a step backwards as a prerequisite to achieving two steps forward.

Instead of concentrating on the impossible task of trying to solve the problem of Jerusalem in the short time-frame left before the impending deadlines, it is worth considering the adoption of a proposal which has enjoyed credibility and legitimacy with important segments of world opinion, albeit as a temporary solution before anything better is hammered out. The solution can be found in the resolution issued by the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947 to partition Palestine into separate, independent Arab and Jewish states as soon as Britain's mandate over Palestine came to an end, with Jerusalem and vicinity maintained as an international zone under permanent UN trusteeship. Because the Arab parties rejected the partition plan, the resolution was never implemented and, consequently, Jerusalem was not internationalised.

But what applied then does not apply now. Today, nobody objects to the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The difficulty of coming forward with a solution for Jerusalem beyond internationalisation is still there. As President Mubarak noted in a statement on the eve of the Camp David summit, Palestinians and Israelis do not have the right to decide the future of Jerusalem alone. The town is sacred for the three monotheistic religions and Arabs, Muslims and Christians oppose its total Judaization.

The internationalisation option was recently invoked by Pope John Paul II, who proposed that Jerusalem be granted an international status outside the sovereignty of any one state. So far, he is the only world leader to adopt the proposal incorporated in the UN partition plan of 1947. Perhaps it is time the Arabs and Muslims consider the pope's proposal, if only as a temporary measure that could overcome the present impasse in the negotiations after the Camp David failure.

The failure of the summit to achieve a breakthrough on the issue of Jerusalem despite the best intentions of the parties highlights the difficulties involved, and has created a vacuum that only the adoption of the proposal can fill. The internationalisation of the city would also relieve the pressure of the 13 September deadline, and give the parties time to search for a more considered way out of the dilemma.

Actually, a just solution of the problem of Jerusalem requires nothing less than the invention of a new type of sovereignty compatible with the unique character of the Holy City. With the advent of globalisation and the achievements of contemporary technology, especially in the field of information, sovereignty in its traditional forms has been greatly eroded. This could eventually leave space for some "spiritual" form of sovereignty, which, when it comes to the holy places of the different monotheistic religions in Jerusalem, could be added to "territorial" sovereignty.

If they opt for the internationalisation of Jerusalem, the Palestinians and, more generally, the Arabs and Muslims, will have to renounce their dream of making East Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state, albeit temporarily. But in counterpart, the Israelis will have to sacrifice making West, if not all of, Jerusalem the capital of the Israeli state. That is why we must expect the internationalisation of Jerusalem to be ferociously opposed by Israel. Clinton himself is threatening to come to Israel's rescue by announcing that he is considering moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That is all the more reason for Arabs and Muslims to join hands with the pope in calling for the internationalisation of Jerusalem as a key step towards a solution of the Palestinian problem.

Related stories:
Beyond Camp David- 3 - 9 June 1999
Camp David II- 13 - 19 July 2000
On compromise solutions- 20 - 26 July 2000


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