Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Internationalising Jerusalem

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed Reporting on President Mubarak's recent visit to Paris, last Friday's major Egyptian papers carried the same headline: "No to the internationalisation of Jerusalem." Their lead story was based on an interview given by the president to the French Le Figaro and published the same day he met President Chirac. Having written an article calling for the internationalisation of Jerusalem in Al-Hayat on the day the collapse of Camp David II was announced and a series of articles on the same theme that subsequently appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, I felt the need to try and reassess the reasons which led me to recommend a line that is in open contradiction with what is now the official stand of both Egypt and the PA.

It seemed to me that the negotiation process had reached a critical impasse after the failure of the Camp David summit. Although the summit did succeed in achieving many partial agreements, the rules agreed on by the summiteers beforehand stipulated that in the absence of an overall agreement any partial agreements would be considered null and void. And the main stumbling block in the way of an agreement was the highly charged issue of the future status of Jerusalem. Indeed, the only reason the negotiation process got as far as it did was because the parties had studiously avoided addressing the issue head-on -- until Camp David. Obviously an issue that the negotiators had for decades considered too hot to handle could not possibly be resolved in a matter of days. The failure of the parties to reach agreement on Jerusalem threatened to bring the whole edifice of the Camp David undertaking crashing down, despite the early successes scored by the summit as represented in the number of partial agreements reached.

The next station, if negotiations continue to falter, is the 13 September deadline, the date on which Arafat reserves the right to unilaterally declare the creation of a Palestinian state, exactly as Israel pulled out of Lebanon without consulting any other party. Barak has warned that a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood will be met with drastic retaliatory measures, which could go as far as the reoccupation by Israel of all the Palestinian territory handed over to the PA under the Oslo agreements. This would not only mean the failure of Camp David, but also of the Oslo agreements and possibly even of all that has been achieved since the Madrid conference.

As a way out of the impasse, I proposed reviving UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, better known as the partition plan, which, though never implemented, enjoys international legitimacy, not least because it is the only document that consecrates Israel's title to statehood within the community of nations.

Two major obstacles stood in the way of the resolution's implementation. The first was the refusal of the Arab parties to recognise the Zionist state. But with their acceptance of Security Council Resolution 242, of the principle of "peace in exchange for land" (meaning Arab land occupied in 1967) and their adoption of peace as a "strategic" objective, this is no longer an obstacle. If there is still a problem concerning the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, it is no longer over the principle that two such states can coexist, but over what the status and prerogatives of the Palestinian state would be and the procedural aspects of its creation (i.e. by mutual agreement or a unilateral decision).

The second obstacle was Jerusalem, still a deeply divisive and contentious problem with no solution in sight. As the failure of the Camp David summit proved, however determined the leaders may be to reach a final agreement, there are objective constraints on their freedom to make concessions when it comes to Jerusalem. My proposal was to approach the issue in the same way it was tackled in 1947, that is, by devising a formula which satisfies the "formal" aspect in order to avoid a standoff over "content." Hence the idea of reviving the internationalisation formula contained in the partition plan, a formula supported by the Vatican and one that would draw the international community into assuming its share of responsibility towards Jerusalem, a holy city not only for the Israelis and the Palestinians but for all believers in the three monotheistic religions throughout the world.

The adoption of the partition plan would relieve the pressure imposed on the peace process by the 13 September deadline and help buy time to resolve the key issue of Jerusalem that now stands as a formidable obstacle in the way of a final agreement. Internationalising Jerusalem is thus a "means" rather than an "end," a way of removing the time factor as a pressure element, a temporary solution to prevent Jerusalem from triggering a development out of control until a permanent and satisfactory solution can be worked out.

However, my understanding of the internationalisation of Jerusalem is at total variance with that of the Figaro journalist who interviewed President Mubarak. He proposed that Jerusalem be given the status of the South Pole, which belongs to nobody and hence to everybody. But that would be a permanent, not a temporary, solution for Jerusalem. He also raised the question of whether the status of the Vatican could be of any help. I too addressed the idea of comparing Jerusalem to the Vatican in previous articles, but from a different perspective. Allegedly in order to avoid an Israeli veto, he proposed a Palestinian Vatican inside a unified Jerusalem that would contain the Islamic sacred places plus the Jerusalem neighbourhood in which the Palestinian republican palace would be situated. I proposed three distinct Vaticans, one containing the Muslim sacred places, one the Christian and one the Jewish, all treated on an equal footing.

I am well aware, of course, of the dangers inherent in the internationalisation option, given the disparity in the respective negotiating positions of the Israelis and Palestinians. With Israel effectively in control of Jerusalem in its entirety, the acceptance of the internationalisation option by the Palestinians could be interpreted as a waiver, albeit tacit, of their right to reclaim East Jerusalem as the capital of their state. On the other hand, if Arafat does not make good on his threat to declare a Palestinian state on 13 September, this will compromise his credibility and seriously undermine his negotiating position.

It could be argued that in announcing his intention to make a unilateral declaration of statehood on a specific date, Arafat committed a political blunder in that he placed himself in a no-win situation: if he carries his threat through, he risks provoking violent Israeli reprisals; if he backs down, he risks being accused of conceding on Palestinian rights. In an attempt to minimise the impact either decision is bound to have, Arafat once again resorted to shuttle diplomacy, calling on a large number of friendly leaders, Arab and non-Arab, to rally support for whatever decision he makes on 13 September. All the non-Arab capitals he visited, including Paris and Moscow, discouraged him from acting unilaterally. The best answer he got from Arab capitals was Cairo's. President Mubarak declared that whenever the PA announced the creation of a Palestinian state, this decision will be supported by Egypt. But he added that Arafat has himself witnessed that all friendly states prefer avoiding a unilateral step, and seeing the state created in agreement with Israel.

Many believe that if Arafat does push ahead with his intention to declare the creation of a Palestinian state next week he will give Israel a pretext to retaliate harshly, with disastrous consequences for the peace process. Moreover, the issue now occupying centre stage is not the Palestinian state but Jerusalem. The whole world, not only the Camp David II triumvirate, is concerned with the fate of the Holy City, and the Palestinians should seize this opportunity to win the sympathy of wide sections of world public opinion and avoid acting in a way that could alienate it.

To that end, they should press for a settlement in line with international legality as represented in UN resolutions, in particular: (1) the partition plan resolution of 1947, calling for two states in Palestine and the internationalisation of Jerusalem; (2) SC Resolution 242, which emphasises the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war (as applied to Jerusalem, this means that East Jerusalem would become the capital of the Palestinian state and West Jerusalem the capital of Israel); (3) Resolution 194 as the basis for a solution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Adding to these three pivotal resolutions the partial agreements reached in Camp David II, all the ingredients will have been brought together to produce the framework agreement needed for the final stage of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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