By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
Newsweek magazine revealed this week that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat warned President Clinton during the Camp David talks last July that if Israel insisted on keeping sovereignty over the Haram Al-Sharif, the situation would deteriorate into a war between Israel and the Palestinians.
In an exclusive story from Jerusalem, Newsweek said: “Arafat’s words were prophetic.” When Clinton suggested that Palestinians retain “custody” over Haram Al-Sharif, while sovereignty would remain in the hands of the Israelis, “Arafat put his pen down. Glowering at Clinton, he warned: “These arguments are explosives and will set off massive fires in the region... Do you want me to throw the region into a new age of religious conflict?”
The weekly reconstructed some of the most sensitive behind the scenes maneuvering concerning the issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem from interviews with key negotiators who participated in the Camp David summit. The magazine concluded that the summit collapsed over “a casual suggestion” by Ehud Barak that, in exchange for giving up de facto control over Haram Al-Sharif, “he wanted to build a small synagogue on the northeast corner of the ancient site.”
The proposal puzzled even some members of Barak’s own team, who wondered quietly if he grasped the profound sensitivities surrounding the sacred area. For Barak, it was a revolutionary rethink, but for Palestinians it was a nonstarter. According to Newsweek, when Clinton took the proposal to Arafat on July 18, the Palestinian leader was furious. He ridiculed the ideas as “entirely Israeli.” For the Palestinians, the proposal confirmed their worst suspicions: that the Israelis wanted a foothold on the Haram.
At 3 a.m., Arafat’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, phoned the Americans to deliver the answer. He met with Bruce Riedel, a National Security Council official and told him: “We consider that these ideas do not form the basis for negotiations.” Riedel’s response was quick and cutting: “So it’s all over.”
Newsweek said four months after the Camp David summit participants are looking back and asking whether the current violence was somehow destined by mistakes made at the negotiating table. Arafat, who agreed to the summit under fierce pressure from Clinton, blames the Israelis and the Americans for not heeding his warnings. But even intimates of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are now openly questioning the wisdom of Camp David. “In retrospect, this was a colossal error,” says Joseph Alpher, Barak’s special media adviser for the summit.
Barak’s position on Jerusalem started to change quietly, as far back as last December when he was contemplating a dramatic gesture. According to Newsweek, under the guidance of Reuven Merhav, a former Mossad agent who runs a think tank on Jerusalem, Barak methodically studied every aspect of the Jerusalem equation, poring over maps and analyzing demographics. “Barak was amazing,” says Merhav. “He realized very quickly that the question was how to redraw the map. “Before long, Merhav says, Barak had accepted the principle that some of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods could be turned over to Palestinian control in exchange for Israeli annexation of Jewish neighborhoods within Palestinian east Jerusalem.
Last spring, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were holding secret talks in a provincial city in Sweden. Officially, Barak had forbidden his team from negotiating the Jerusalem question. But in what one Israeli official called “corridor talks,” the Israeli negotiators presented the idea of a neighborhood swap and even showed their Palestinian counterparts a detailed map of their proposal.
According to the weekly, it was a clear sign that Barak was positioning himself in history as the leader who knew how to make a painful compromise, a deal no other Israeli leader had been willing to make. Just in case, though, he had commissioned polls to check reaction at home. They showed that most Israelis were ready to take a chance on dividing the city if it meant ending the dispute once and for all. When the meeting ended, it was clear to the Americans that Israel was ready to cut a deal.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)