Ira Chernus  


Israel’s Prime Minister Barak failed to gain the great prize at the recent Camp David summit—a full peace with the Palestinians. But Barak certainly has won the public relations prize in the U.S. media. After his 2-week marathon meeting with Palestinian President Arafat ended, news outlets here repeated President Clinton’s comment that Barak had come a lot further than Arafat in agreeing to compromise. It was the familiar picture of a reasonable Western-style Israeli leader against an intransigent, perhaps even fanatic, Arab. Barak came home to political wrangling of a typically European parliamentary style. Arafat returned to a great hero’s welcome for his refusal to compromise on the Palestinian demand to control all East Jerusalem. This only reinforced the stereotypes.

As details of the Camp David talks emerged, it seemed Clinton was expressing his annoyance that an American proposal for compromise, grudgingly accepted by Barak, was turned down by Arafat. The Palestinian leader was offered at least two great plums: a separate Palestinian city of Al-Quds, to be carved out of a bit of the Old City and a few predominantly Arab suburban neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and his own "President’s Office" in the Old City.

A compromise like this has been in the works for a long time. A colleague of mine saw similar plans, tucked away in a drawer in a Jerusalem city office, years ago. Palestinian workmen have finished a grand hall in the East Jerusalem suburbs that could easily serve as—and is probably intended to be—the meeting place for a Palestinian legislature. Clinton’s plan is the kind of deal everyone has been expecting and inching toward for a long time. Understandably, he was peeved when Arafat turned it down. It is probably just a matter of timing. Arafat has at least until his self-imposed deadline of September 13, the day he says he’ll declare an independent Palestinian state. No need to rush, he figures. Even if he has to suffer a bit in the U.S. popularity polls, he’s way up among the Palestinian, where his political fate is decided.

If the U.S. media blame Arafat, while his folks at home praise him, it reflects a very different perception of what is going on in the wrangling over Jerusalem. Our media take the Israeli view, which begins with the present situation. Right now Israel controls all of Jerusalem. Barak is willing to share the eastern part of the city. Arafat says he wants full sovereignty over East Jerusalem and won’t compromise. So Barak looks like the reasonable guy, hence our hero.

But Palestinians approach the problem from a historical perspective. Their view begins hundreds of years ago, when Arabs controlled all of Jerusalem. It was, and remains, Islam’s third holiest city; hence the name Al-Quds, "The Holy Place." For a long time now it has been controlled politically by non-Arabs. After a long era of Turkish control it was taken over by the English after World War I. When the English left, the ensuing Arab-Israeli war divided the city. The eastern half was once again controlled by Arabs. But they were Jordanians, hardly friends and sometimes enemies of the Palestinians. In 1967, Israel reconquered East Jerusalem, along with the entire West Bank.

In light of this history, Palestinians say with some reason that they are the ones who are compromising. They could claim all of Jerusalem as their own, taken from them by force but never by right. Instead, they only want part—and the smaller part, at that. East Jerusalem is less built-up, less economically developed, less lucrative. Its appeal to Palestinians is not financial but historical and religious.