Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Eyeball to eyeball

By Graham Usher

Whether or not they actually meet during the UN Millennium Summit in New York, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat will be circling like two prize-fighters, each waiting for the other to blink.

Will Barak -- having shown "the political courage at Camp David to break taboos on issues like Jerusalem" -- now "show the same courage by going all the way with us to reach a solution?" asks one Palestinian Authority official optimistically. Or will Arafat simply close his eyes and accept that the Israeli-US consensus has moved beyond recognition of Israel's sovereignty in West Jerusalem to now focus on the division of spoils in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City.

In the run-up to their separate meetings with President Clinton yesterday, both leaders were keeping their eyes wide open. During an Israeli cabinet meeting on 3 September Barak said there was no point meeting Arafat unless he showed the "flexibility" and "openness" needed to resume negotiations on the basis of ideas raised at Camp David. In a predictable counter, Arafat told the meeting of Arab League Foreign Ministers the same day in Cairo that "there will be no peace without Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem" and "the Palestinians will not agree to any solution that would limit their sovereignty in the city."

All this would seem a recipe for confrontation were it not so obviously a bluff. True, Barak may not be personally meeting with Arafat (he rarely does, given the atrocious chemistry between the two men), but Israeli negotiators remain in contact with their Palestinian counterparts, either directly or through Egyptian or American intermediaries.

And Arafat's statements would sound more convincing were it not that Palestinians are fully aware of the kind of concessions he was ready to make on "Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem" at Camp David. These apparently include acquiescence to Israel's desire to incorporate Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem into "Israeli" West Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and acceptance of the idea of land swaps to slake Israel's thirst to annex the vast West Bank settlement blocs of Maale Adumim, Gush Ezion, Ariel and even Kiryat Arba.

Many see this as a grievous concession. While the Israelis have not ruled out the idea of land swaps, neither have they accepted the Palestinian demand that any transfer of territory be grounded on the principle of "equivalence of size, quality and value." Without this the trade could be one "where Israel gets the main aquifer in the West Bank while we get the desert of the Negev," comments one leader of Arafat's Fatah movement morosely.

Neither is Arafat's case made any stronger when other Palestinian leaders issue statements that run so contrary to it. Two days after Arafat addressed the Arab Foreign Ministers, Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qrei (Abu Alaa), told the European Parliament that should the Palestinians and Israelis not reach an agreement on Jerusalem, the Palestinians would be willing to accept "international sovereignty" over the city. "Jerusalem would then not be the capital of Israel or Palestine but of the world," he said.

If Qrei is talking about "international sovereignty" over Jerusalem as a whole, then he surely knows this is a non-starter as far as Israel and the US are concerned. If he is talking about the Old City, it might perhaps serve as basis for renewed negotiations, say Israeli sources. But, if so, "internationalisation" would mean a retreat from the Palestinian national position -- endorsed by countless PLO Central Council and Executive meetings -- of total sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Nor is there much evidence that Barak would buy the internationalisation solution. In any case he is prepared to wait, if not "months," as he told Kofi Annan at the UN on 4 September, then at least "a few weeks." After all, why change a negotiating strategy that seems to be working?

On the same day PLO Foreign Minister Farouk Qaddoumi added his voice to a chorus of others, saying that it was unlikely there would be any declaration of Palestinian statehood when the PLO's Central Council convenes in Gaza this weekend to discuss the matter. Rather there is a need to give "more room" to the negotiations, said Qaddoumi. Other PLO officials like Yasser Abed Rabbo have stressed the declaration of statehood should serve Palestinian "interests" rather than Israeli-driven deadlines.

After seven years, negotiations would seem to have had "room" enough to reach an agreement. As for serving Palestinian "interests," this is simply disingenuous. Every Palestinian is aware that the reason the Central Council will not declare a state on 13 September is because most of the world (including the European Union) has told it not to. The world knows -- as Barak knows -- that if you stare long and hard enough, it tends to be Arafat who blinks.

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