Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. -Psalm 122:6
This has been an active year for the Middle East peace process. Beginning with the Oslo Accord in the early 90s, the Middle East may not have achieved a permanent peace, but it did enjoy a stable condition of "no war."1 Prior to this, there had been decades of strife, riots and terrorist activities.
In recent months, however, many safeguards guaranteeing this state of "no war" have been systematically knocked down with few replacement controls, creating the situation wherein war is now "more likely - by increasing the opportunities for war without removing the causes."2
Key factors in the previous stability of the region were a peace agreement between Jordan and Israel and the fact that the Israelis were able to withdraw from major Palestinian population centers, where the majority of Arab-Israeli violence had been occurring.
Until this year, the Arabs have had every reason to participate in the process, since it provided them a continuous stream of dividends for very little effort on their part. The Palestinians gained a territory of their own, complete with 30,000 armed policemen. And Jordan completed its post-Gulf War rehabilitation with the West at little cost to its relationships with other Arab countries.
Everyone knew, though, that once these pregame activities ended, hard ball would commence. Intractable issues would have to be passionately disputed, entailing final border determinations, water rights, the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, the ultimate status of Judea and Samaria and, last but not least, sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem. This includes control over the Temple Mount and what arrangements would be made to establish access "corridors" for pilgrims to access it without crossing opposition territory.3
Everyone also realized that once the peace process played out, the Arabs would have no further incentive to remain at the negotiating table and behave themselves, leaving a new round of war(s) as the only remaining option. The act of accepting a final agreement would force the Arabs to relinquish any future claims on the Israeli state, its people, and the very existence of Israel itself. It would be final; the events begun in 1947-48 would be over. In the world's eyes, the Arabs would lose all "legitimacy" for further struggle.
The last 24 months saw several key players change in the Middle East. Jordan's King Hussein died and was replaced by his son and heir, King Abdullah. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad passed away, succeeded by his designated successor, Bashar. How the new leadership in those countries affects the peace process remains to be seen.
The First Collapse
Earlier this year, peace talks between Israel and Syria/Lebanon collapsed over the issue of the Golan Heights. The Golan is critical because the highland area plays a key role in the security of northern Israel. Syria wanted the Golan back. Israel twice obtained it at tremendous cost in lives and was now being asked to return it once again. There is tremendous opposition in Israel to doing so.
A second contention is that Syria maintains ongoing support of Hizbullah terrorists who have been totally opposed to the peace process and make continual efforts to disrupt it. Prime Minister Barak said, "The government of Israel cannot hold peace negotiations when the Syrians are not preventing Hizbullah from attacking the IDF in the security zone." 4 When the peace talks at Camp David collapsed, Hizbullah urged Yasser Arafat to once again take up arms against Israel.
Internal Strife in Israel
Internal politics in Israel have been stormy this year with constant efforts to force no-confidence votes through the Knesset. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's administration came under severe fire as the result of revelations that the Prime Minister violated Israel's election finance law during his campaign last year by laundering more than $1 million in illegal contributions through registered charities.
Meanwhile, if that weren't enough, a previously secret Israeli report broke precedent by admitting that the Israeli security service, Shin Beth, used torture on detainees during the Palestinian Intifada of 1988-1992. 5
The Vatican's Agreement
In February, Yasser Arafat signed an agreement with the Vatican covering the status of churches and freedom of worship in Palestinian-controlled territories, including Bethlehem and Jericho.6 The agreement also stated that Jerusalem is sacred to three faiths - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - and, as such, "unilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable." 7 This was a hint that Israel should consult Christians and Muslims concerning its final status. The Vatican has never recognized Israel's claim to Jerusalem, and in this agreement joined the PLO in requesting an internationally guaranteed statute to preserve "the proper identity and sacred character" of the city.8
Rumors in the Land
By May 2000, there were rumors that Barak was ready to offer recognition of a Palestinian state, uproot Jewish communities in the disputed territories and turn over full control of Arab villages bordering Jerusalem. That came as news to other Israeli officials, who were apparently surprised. 9
Barak also proposed giving the Palestinian Authority 80% of the West Bank, only keeping control over some of the larger Israeli settlements there. PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused this offer, demanding the entire West Bank and nothing less.10 The same can be said for sovereignty over Jerusalem. The Knesset voted later in the year to transfer the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis to the Palestinians. Abu Dis is considered the probable capital of a future Palestinian state, should Israeli proposals be accepted.
The IDF's Withdrawal from Lebanon
Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, causing a mixture of joy and apprehension for those left behind to pick up the pieces. Many Lebanese were joyful that the occupation finally ended and they could return to the homes they left more than twenty years ago, but there was uncertainty whether or not the Lebanese government could keep the peace or if the country would return to the civil war that tore it apart before the Israelis came.
Israel invaded Beirut in 1982 to drive out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arafat, who was launching terrorist attacks against northern Israel. At that time Israeli troops were greeted as liberators, but when they did not retreat back into Israel, this gave rise to the Islamic terrorist group, Hizbullah. For 18 years Hizbullah has waged guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives in both camps.11
It should be pointed out that while the world press has been more than willing to point out the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, it has virtually ignored the Syrian occupation of over 50% of Lebanese territory, which has existed longer than the Israeli presence there.
Collapse of the Peace Talks
In June, President Clinton made a final push for compromise in the peace process. Beginning July 11, the President hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in a process that lasted well over two weeks.
Although many issues were involved, the core dispute revolved around the sovereignty of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians want as their undivided capital. Both consider Jerusalem a holy city and the stakes (both political and personal) are high for anyone who surrenders any part of it.
After going deep into overtime, the negotiations crashed. Early media reports indicated there were compromises on the table allowing Israel to retain sovereignty over Jerusalem, but with Palestinians able to declare sections of East Jerusalem as their capital. Arafat rejected that. Some reports indicated Barak was even willing to give away sovereignty to parts of Jerusalem.
Toward the Future
The status of peace in the Middle East is now uncertain. Feelers for new talks have begun, but Arafat has reaffirmed publicly that he is pushing ahead with plans to declare an independent Palestinian state on September 13.12 Barak has promised annexation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) if he does.
Political observers are fearful that the summit's failure will unleash new conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is demanding that Arafat once again take up arms against Israel. And since May, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been preparing for the possibility of a new Intifada after Arafat's proclamation of an independent Palestinian state.13
Political Status of the Players
Upon arriving home, Arafat was given a hero's welcome for refusing to budge on the hard ball issues. In a stinging remark, Arafat said "Whether they like it or not, Jerusalem is the single most important element of these negotiations, and Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state whether they like it or not. And if they don't, they can go and drink the Dead Sea."14 (The water of the Dead Sea is fatally toxic.)
Shuttle diplomacy has seen Arafat flying all over the Middle East to muster Arab support for his position on Jerusalem. Both Arafat and Barak met with Egypt's President Mubarak, who is pushing hard for unequivocal unified Arab support of Arafat's refusal to accept Israeli sovereignty over the al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem.
The stakes are high, not only for the political entities but for the people involved as well. The editor-in-chief of the Arabic weekly Al-Mussawar , Makram Mohamed Ahmed, warned that if Arafat compromised on sovereignty over the entire holy city of Jerusalem, especially al-Aqsa mosque, "...he would immediately pay the price; he would be shot dead." Recall that far more Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians than Israelis. The cost of failure can be fatal.
Changes in the Political Winds
In Israel, Barak's political challenges are mounting. The Prime Minister faced much discord at home during the entire peace process, withstanding no less than two no-confidence votes, one of which failed by only one vote. Only about 50% of the Israeli people favor the terms of the current peace process and it is they who will have to ratify whatever agreements are made with the Palestinians.
Now Barak faces another crisis. The first reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections passed by a vote of 61-51 in the first week of August. Barak was saved by the bell when the Knesset began its three-month recess, affording him time to force the peace process forward and reconsolidate a new coalition to keep his government afloat before the Knesset can reconvene at the end of October.
As we go to press, the Middle East becomes more unstable every day. The period of "no war" truly appears to be a thing of the past. Israel is seriously fearful of Saudi billionaire fugitive Osama Bin Laden, who has reportedly sent agents to launch terrorist attacks against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.15 He is considered a far greater terrorist threat than those with which Israel has dealt in the past.
Controversy over the Temple Mount continues. Muslims continue to excavate under the Mount without taking care to preserve archeological evidence indicating long historical Jewish presence there. Meanwhile, plans to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount could provoke a war in the Middle East.
An announcement was made at the beginning of August by the Chief Rabbinical Council that it was setting up a committee to "realize our rights and sovereignty on the Temple Mount."16 Ikrema Sabri, the current Mufti of Jerusalem, said that building a synagogue on the hill would start a war. They would be playing with fire.
Many Israeli Jerusalem Arabs are fearful of being transferred to Palestinian Authority jurisdiction if a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is reached. Arutz-7 news service reported that many of them have begun catching up on back taxes and other civil debts as well as bringing their documents up to date so that they can claim they are Israeli citizens in good standing.17 It is speculated that an overwhelming majority of Jerusalem's Arabs might choose to remain under Israeli control rather than come under Palestinian jurisdiction.
It is sobering to recall that virtually everything the Palestinians are demanding today the Israelis were willing to give them in 1948. At that time the Jews wanted only a small part of Palestine, which did not include Jerusalem. The Arabs rejected this, threatening to drive the Jews into the sea. Fifty years later and three subsequent wars have seen the Arabs consistently attacking Israel and losing those things they are now demanding back from the peace process, mainly land.
Many Israelis worry that after giving up the West Bank, chunks of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, there will be nothing to keep the largely Arab population of Galilee from wanting its independence, a concern well justified since many Palestinian separatists are calling on the Hizbullah to take its war into Galilee.18 There is also a rising fifth-column movement inside Israel among Israeli Arabs.
Former Israeli Ambassador, Abba Eban, once made an observation that the Arabs "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." It would seem that his observation was once again proven correct at Camp David.
The western world does not understand that the existence of Israel remains the core contention for the Islamic world. This can be seen in the Arabic-language press, which is almost never translated into English for the rest of the world to read. What is said by Arafat in English is designed to shape the mood of the Western world regarding the peace process. Hostility towards the existence of the State of Israel itself continues openly in Arab-world media.
The concluding dialogue at Camp David between Barak and Arafat is reported to have gone this way...
Arafat: "Our mosques stand on the [temple] mount."
Barak: "Yes, and under them rests our holy Temple." 19
That was the end.
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