Don't Let Hasty Peace Mar the Magic of Jerusalem

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There was a moment of embarrassingly jumbled choreography as Camp David got started on Tuesday. Clinton went through the door to the lodge first, and then Barak and Arafat performed a lightly sinister little dance of after-you-no-after-you that ended in a wrestling match — childish and weirdly unyielding and bubbling with nervous, hostile laughter.

This war of politesse went on so long, the Israeli and the Palestinian outflanking each other with arm and shoulder, each insisting that the other would damn well enter the room first, that, watching it, I checked to see if Arafat was wearing his sidearm. Maybe he'd pull out his automatic and insist on the point. But Arafat was not packing. Finally Clinton pulled and Barak pushed and the Palestinian popped through the door ahead of the Israeli. Two wills, one geography — one narrow threshold.

I used to spend a lot of time in Jerusalem. That was more than 10 years ago, during the Intifada. Palestinian children hurled stones at cars with Israeli plates, and then danced away, electric with gaiety and fury, bullfighting the soldiers and their rubber bullets. Piles of tires burned sootily on the Nablus road. One morning walking from East Jerusalem to the Old City, I passed the fresh carcass of a bus. It had been firebombed, with passengers aboard, the previous evening.

Jerusalem would be the most beautiful city in the world, if it were not defaced by viciousness and paranoia. But it almost always has been — both beautiful and vicious, I mean. It is my favorite city in the world. The place is patently enchanted, sacred, suffused, in the evening, with a radiant rose light. It has been sacred almost since the beginning of time. That's the trouble. Jerusalem gives you a headache with its significances — historical, religious. When I was there, I kept thinking to myself, there is a secret here, a key. If I stare at it long enough, the secret will become manifest. I will look at it in the way a diamond-cutter studies a diamond, until he reads its seams and proclivities and possibilities and faults, and at last strikes it, so that it breaks to perfection. I looked for a gem of a solution.

Monotheism, by definition, should not be a plural noun. Jerusalem is the world capital of monotheisms. The Christians, thank God, made off to Rome, and then scattered their power centers elsewhere in the West. The Christian attachment to Jerusalem is sublimated, sentimental. But if you enter almost any Palestinian home, there, high and prominent on the sitting room wall, you will see a framed portrait of the Dome of the Rock. And to the Jew, of course, the meaning of Jerusalem is central and incalculable — promise, hope, identity. Next year in Jerusalem. In the moral prismatics of the Middle East, facts have less status than memories and dreams.

Inimical absolutes, superimposed upon one another, do not lend themselves to political accommodations. I sometimes think that Jerusalem ought to be taken over and administered by, say, Tibetan Buddhists in exile. Or perhaps by the Disney organization, which might turn it into a theme park of monotheism.

Maybe there is a diamond-cutter's solution. Maybe Barak and Arafat, with Clinton's help, will find it. I doubt it. No mere sleight-of-hand is going to work in a place as powerfully magic — and as experienced in violence and hatred — as Jerusalem. I hope that this desperate and fairly dangerous summit does not try to patch together anything fatuous, on Jerusalem or any of the other problems (refugees, water rights, and the rest). Especially on Jerusalem.