There were no doubts that the Camp David peace talks would be punctuated by drama, threats and scares. The negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were focusing on core issues that touched on the very identity of Israelis and the Palestinian people. By design, those questions had been put off until the final talks on the assumption that they could only be tackled once the two sides knew each other better. Unfortunately, seven years of negotiations have done little to narrow the gap between them, and there was a risk that momentum would be lost. That, and probably thoughts of his legacy, inspired U.S. President Bill Clinton to invite the two men to Camp David to break the logjam.
It was a high-risk gamble, but it is unlikely that anyone thought that it would be Mr. Clinton who upped the ante and walked out on the negotiations. That is what he did earlier this week, declaring the summit a failure before departing for the G8 summit in Okinawa. Yet just an hour after the White House made that solemn declaration, the Palestinians and the Israelis agreed to continue without Mr. Clinton.
If Mr. Clinton’s move was a bluff, it was well done. His decision to call the summit a failure made each side realize the dangers of intransigence. It forced Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to face facts. Mr. Clinton was willing to facilitate negotiations, but he could not push either of the two men to make decisions that were theirs alone to make. They would have to push further and make truly historic decisions if they wanted a real peace.
By every account, the key issue is Jerusalem. Both leaders have drawn red lines on the question. Mr. Barak – like every Israeli prime minister before him – insists on undivided Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. He is ready to concede some “municipal autonomy” to the Palestinians, however.
Mr. Arafat says that Arab East Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, is occupied land, and must be returned to full Palestinian sovereignty and become the capital of the Palestinian state. He is willing to make an exception for the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Wailing Wall.
Negotiators are reportedly focusing on the meaning of words like “control,” “sovereignty” and “authority,” and how those concepts would be implemented. These are important: About 200,000 Arabs make up 30 percent of the city’s population. But the real problem is that Jerusalem is neither a semantic nor a truly political issue: It is a symbol – a defining element of the identity of both people.
Both Israelis and Palestinians trace their presence in Jerusalem back thousands of years. Both refer to the city in mystical terms, claiming that it is part of their souls. When they talk about Jerusalem, leaders speak of their responsibilities both to the past and to the unborn. The city contains sites sacred to both religions: It is home to the Al Aqsa mosque, third-holiest shrine in Islam, and the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 and the holiest shrine in Judaism. (It contains sacred Christian shrines as well.)
Finding room to compromise, and then selling that agreement to their respective peoples, will not be easy. There are some in both camps that will oppose any deal, no matter how just. The vast majority of people, however, want to end the hostility, and are willing to be persuaded that the two groups can live side by side in peace. But their leaders must lead them to that conclusion.
That is the challenge of Camp David. Not only must Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat strike a deal, but they – and their teams – must sell it to their people and see that its promise is realized.
Failure is in no one’s interest. It would undermine the credibility of both leaders and the peace that they have championed. It would lead to a hardening of hearts and violence on a scale that has not been witnessed in the Middle East in decades. It would undermine everything that has been accomplished in the last quarter-century.
Mr. Clinton’s move has obliged all the delegates at Camp David to recognize the stakes involved. If they fail, it is not a matter of walking away from negotiations, but of walking away from peace. It would embolden the rejectionists on both sides, and the violence that is sure to follow would only sway the moderates upon whom the future depends. There is very little margin for maneuver, but there is enough. It is up to Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to claim their place in history.
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