In early September 2000, about two months after Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat returned empty-handed from the failed summit at Camp David, a series of clandestine contacts was held in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians. Most of the meetings took place in an isolated private home in the western Jerusalem suburb of Ein Karem, and were meant to find a formula that would resolve the harsh dispute that broke out at the summit around the future of the Temple Mount.
The talks were held at the home of Dr. Moshe Amirav, the man who was appointed the day after the Camp David debacle as the prime minister's adviser on the issue of a permanent settlement in Jerusalem. He continued to serve in this capacity through the Taba talks, and until Barak left the Prime Minister's Office. Seated alongside side Amirav at some of the conversations was Danny Yatom, who headed the political-security staff at the Prime Minister's Office at the time. In these conversations, the Palestinians were represented by the late Faisal Husseini, who headed the Palestinian negotiating team on Jerusalem.
The dispute over the Temple Mount had nothing to do with practical arrangements that would be implemented there. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis agreed to leave intact the arrangements that had been in place since the Six-Day War, in accordance with which the site is administered by the Muslim Waqf [Moslem religious trust] without Israeli intervention.
The crux of the dispute centered on sovereignty, and nothing else. While Arafat demanded that the entire Temple Mount - Haram al-Sharif in the Arab terminology - would be under full and exclusive sovereignty of the Palestinians, Barak demanded that partial sovereignty over the site - which, to the disbelief of several of his colleagues in the Israeli delegation, he suddenly began to call "The Holy of Holies" - would remain in Israel's possession.
Amirav and Husseini, whose Ein Karem conversations took place with Barak and Arafat's knowledge, worked out a formula that both men believed would be able to circumvent this difference of opinion. According to the proposal they drafted, the United Nations would establish a "commonwealth of states," in whose hands the Temple Mount would be entrusted. This commonwealth of nations would have 11 member states: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian state that would be established as part of the peace treaty, and Israel. Ongoing administration of the Mount, stated the document, would remain in the Waqf's domain, and Yasser Arafat "could be the guardian of the sites holy to Islam."
The proposal, described by Amirav in a recently published booklet ("The Palestinian Struggle for Jerusalem," published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies), was welcomed by the United States and Egypt after it was presented for study to Barak and Arafat. Barak said that he found it acceptable, but assessed that Arafat would reject it.
"Husseini came back from his meeting with Arafat bearing a negative response," writes Amirav. "When I asked what he was basing his optimism on when he drafted the proposal together with me, he answered that it was a proposal to which Arafat had already agreed prior to Camp David." "At the end of that month," Amirav writes on the same page, "the visit to the Temple Mount by opposition head Ariel Sharon took place. The visit was held with the approval of the government of Israel, in spite of Arafat and Husseini's request that the government prevent it ...the Temple Mount once again became the focal point for conflagration."
The book by Amirav, who teaches public policy at Haifa University and at Beit Berl Teachers Training College, mainly describes the strategies that enabled Palestinians to become the main player in the struggle over the future of Jerusalem. The book's final two chapters shed new and interesting light on the manner in which negotiations on Jerusalem were held at the Camp David summit and during the critical period between it and the Taba talks.
His main argument is that in the future, the Temple Mount will be the only Jerusalem issue on which agreement has not been reached and that for all of the other subjects on the table (refugees, borders, settlements and security arrangements), agreement was within reach. The Temple Mount, claims Amirav, is what prevented the sides from reaching agreement.
"The Camp David summit," explains Amirav in conversation with Ha'aretz, "became a `Jerusalem summit,' perhaps even a `Temple Mount summit.'" The three leaders who took part - Barak, Arafat and their host, U.S. President Bill Clinton - devoted, claims Amirav, "hundreds of hours" to discussions on Jerusalem in general and the Temple Mount in particular. "It may be hard to believe," says Amirav, "but Clinton himself spent hours poring over maps with Barak and Arafat.
It was Arafat's and Barak's stubborn insistence on sovereignty that prevented an agreement. Arafat insisted on full and exclusive Palestinian sovereignty "both because he wanted to go down in history as having liberated the Temple Mount and because he wanted the Temple Mount to provide a pan-Muslim counterweight to the little State of Palestine."
Barak insisted on it "because he wanted to go down in history as having achieved for Israel that which it does not now have - sovereignty over part of the Temple Mount."
Amirav is convinced that in so doing, both Barak and Arafat committed grave errors. Nevertheless, he finds it easier to understand Arafat's position than Barak's. "Arafat wanted to be Saladin and Barak wanted to be Ben-Gurion," says Amirav. "What Barak didn't understand is that Ben-Gurion actually did everything he could to be rid of the Temple Mount. From Herzl on down, including Ussishkin and Chaim Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin, all of the leaders of Zionism realized that the Temple Mount was actually a thorn in the side of the Zionist movement. The first Zionist leader to insist on the Temple Mount, interestingly, was Ehud Barak. He referred to the `Holy of Holies,' a term that denotes the four square meters which the High Priest would enter on Yom Kippur. Barak applied this term to the entire plaza, including the mosques, and brought an end to the whole negotiations over this issue." Nevertheless, based on Amirav's description, it seems that Barak had expressed his willingness to make do with the American proposal, which designated to Israel subterranean sovereignty underneath the mosque plaza.
Based on what Amirav writes, as well as a conversation with Ha'aretz, it seems as if the Israeli delegation to Camp David prepared for the negotiations on Jerusalem in an utterly negligent and ineffective manner. "Barak arrived in Camp David without having done any preparation for the subject," he says. No preparatory work was done in advance of the negotiations on Jerusalem, reports Amirav, because Barak was afraid - given the fragile status of the coalition - of a leak that would let the public know that he was planning to discuss a partition of Jerusalem. "In the period leading up to Camp David," Amirav recalls, "Shlomo Ben-Ami carried on secret negotiations with the Palestinians in Stockholm. I met with him in Jerusalem between his two sorties to Stockholm, and heard him say that `everything was fine' - the Palestinians were showing flexibility and it would be possible to reach an agreement with them on Jerusalem. I asked him what would be the lines of the settlement in Jerusalem, and Shlomo replied that he did not know, because Barak had instructed him not to discuss Jerusalem. `Ehud wanted to handle the Jerusalem file himself,' Ben-Ami explained to me. I didn't like this answer, so I went to Danny Yatom. Yatom answered me in more or less the same vein. `Trust Ehud,' he told me. "Everything will be okay.'"
As opposed to the Israeli delegation, the Palestinian delegation arrived in Camp David armed with abundant information, including detailed background material and a well-formulated position. The Palestinian position included, says Amirav, "a territorial element" and "a historic element." In the territorial circle, writes Amirav, the Palestinians demanded to divide sovereignty over the city according to the 1967 lines, although they expressed a readiness to leave under Israeli sovereignty all of the Jewish neighborhoods ("settlements" in the Palestinian parlance) that were built in the city beyond the Green Line. "Essentially," Amirav declares, "in so doing the Palestinians were conceding one-third of the territory of eastern Jerusalem." In the Old City they were willing to leave Israel with sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall.
In the historic realm, Amirav argues, the Palestinians decided to forfeit their demand to get back the 2,000 homes abandoned by Palestinians in the western part of the city in 1948, and suffice with financial compensation and a demand "to enable several owners of uninhabited houses, for instance in Lifta, to return and live in them."
Their position on the Temple Mount was close to that which would be formulated two months later in the Amirav-Husseini document. "The Palestinians," writes Amirav, "agreed to concede exclusive sovereignty (on the Temple Mount) and replace it with joint sovereignty arrangements with the Islamic states, the Arab League and even international bodies." But as soon as the talks at Camp David began, Arafat abandoned this position and in its place issued a rigid, uncompromising demand to receive full sovereignty over the site. Amirav feels the shift had to do with the United States' aligning itself with Barak, who demanded that part of the compound be under Israeli sovereignty. "The U.S.'s willingness to enable Israel partial sovereignty on the Mount or under the mosques," writes Amirav, " seemed (to Arafat) as its cooption to the Israeli scheme to minimize the status of the Palestinians in the mosques. There were even those who viewed it as an opening to the possibility that the Israelis might someday demand to build the Temple next to the mosques or even in their place."
"The day that Clinton issued his proposal, according to which the Palestinians would have sovereignty over the mosque plaza and Israel would have sovereignty over the territory underneath the plaza," Amirav told Ha'aretz, "Arafat was boiling mad, really went nuts. He started to yell at Clinton, and asked him if he would ever agree for someone else to be sovereign over territory beneath the streets of Washington."
"Barak," continues Amirav, "had thought that if he were generous toward the Palestinians on all of the issues, and left discussion of Jerusalem for the end, then the Palestinians would become magnanimous toward him on the issue of Jerusalem. In actuality, the exact opposite took place. On the first day of the summit, the Palestinians demanded that Jerusalem be discussed. Discussion of Jerusalem began on the third day, and became the core issue of the summit." In the course of the summit Barak - who according to Amirav had at first been prepared to concede only the peripheral Arab neighborhoods of the city (in the northern sector) - also agreed to give up the inner-city neighborhoods (Sheikh Jarah, Wadi Joz, Salah a-Din, A-Tur, Silwan, Abu Tor and others) as well as the Muslim Quarter and Christian Quarter of the Old City. Ultimately, when it came time to discuss the Temple Mount, he decided to blow up the entire negotiations over this issue.
Amirav feels that in so doing, Barak committed "a fatal error," both because Israel did not in his opinion need the Temple Mount and because the agreement that was being reached on Jerusalem would have granted Israel "most formidable achievements": international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; Palestinian acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the neighborhoods built after 1967, on one-third of the territory of eastern Jerusalem; and leaving the entire city "open and undivided, physically speaking."
But Barak wanted to go down in Jewish history as the man who gave Israel sovereignty, if only partial, over the Temple Mount. "He simply wanted to achieve one too many achievements, and crashed his head up against the wall. After Camp David, Barak and Ben-Ami suddenly began claiming that when the Palestinians deny the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, it is as if they are denying the Jewish connection to all of the Land of Israel, including Haifa and Tel Aviv."
Moshe Amirav calls this a "groundless assertion." He says in exchange for conceding the Temple Mount, Israel could have received, the recognition of the entire world - including the Arab and Muslim world - both of its sovereign existence and Jerusalem as its capital. Sooner or later, he says, Israel will be forced to "get rid of the Temple Mount." He proposes that Israel "give the Temple Mount as a gift, not to Arafat, but to the leaders of the countries of Islam." If it does so, he believes that Israel will receive the recognition of the entire Muslim world.
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