The Issue Was Jerusalem — and Arafat Had No Wiggle Room

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"God, it's hard," President Clinton complained last week of his efforts — futile, it turns out — to cajole Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the terms of a divorce.

The President's invoking of the Almighty may not have been coincidental. After all, he had been trying to coax both sides toward an elusive agreement in which a man-made set of laws would apply in different parts of a city deemed holy by the three great monotheistic faiths.

Yahweh, God and Allah are ostensibly one and the same deity, but the mutually exclusive interpretations that divide his worshipers into Jews, Christians and Muslims have tended to negate one another — a process mirrored in Jerusalem's architecture, where all-important shrines are built atop the ruins of other all-important shrines, fueling one of the most fraught territorial disputes in human history. Atop the ruins of the Jews' Great Temple, which according to Jewish prophecy must be rebuilt to welcome the Messiah, stands the Al Aqsa mosque, the site of the Prophet Mohammed's ascension to heaven and the third holiest site in Islam.

Cut to the geopolitical present tense (or tense present), and the Holy City appeared to be all that stood between the secular, terrestrial powers represented by Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat and an agreement to put behind them a brutal shared history of conquest, dispossession, terrorism and war. But even those pro-Western Arab regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that have traditionally encouraged Arafat to compromise have backed the Palestinian leader to the hilt in demanding that the eastern portion of the city captured by Israel in 1967 — the part, incidentally, which contains all the above-mentioned holy sites — be handed back. Because the same religious passion that drives Israel's insistence that it be recognized as the sovereign power over all of the Holy City also makes holding onto Jerusalem an irrefutable imperative not just for Palestinians, but for all Arabs. And any Palestinian or Arab leader who settles for anything less is unlikely to survive politically — perhaps even physically.

President Clinton's difficulty may have been underlined by the fact that a longtime ally, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, has been on a lightning shuttle through Arab capitals to ensure that the Saudis, Jordanians, Syrians and Egyptians speak with one voice in insisting that no compromise be made on the demand for Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem (except for the Jewish and Armenian quarters of the Old City and the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple). Barak, meanwhile, has taken flak back home for even offering Palestinians the limited authority in parts of East Jerusalem.