Clinton's Final Mideast Plan: A Primer

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Palestinian refugees chant anti-Israeli slogans during a funeral ceremony

From its start in Oslo several years ago, the entire peace process has been premised on separating Israelis and Palestinians by creating a Palestinian state on territory currently controlled by Israel. While that basic premise is accepted by both sides, theyíre unable to agree over the borders of that state and over the fate of those Palestinians outside of it whose parents or grandparents once lived inside Israel itself. Now President Clinton, in the last weeks of his term, has come up with some last-minute proposals to try and engineer a breakthrough. Here are the specifics and what each side is objecting to:

Palestinian Borders

The Palestinian side has insisted that their state should consist of all the Palestinian territory conquered by Israel in the war of 1967, i.e. the entire Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The Israelis hope to persuade the Palestinians to settle for less, claiming that Israel's security needs require a presence in strategic parts of the West Bank and that some of the Jewish settlements built during the years of occupation should be incorporated into Israel.

Clintonís Proposal: According to reports, the president is proposing that the Palestinian state comprise all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank, including most of East Jerusalem and the Old City, home to such revered sites at the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see more on this subject below).

Israeli Reservations: The Israeli military is reluctant to leave the Jordan River valley, which is currently Israel's first line of defense against threats from the east. The generals have publicly warned Prime Minister Barak against accepting a deal that limits their access to the valley. And Israelís settler community, which numbers some 200,000 in the West Bank, as well as their conservative and religious supporters, see the territory as part of the biblical land of Israel, and have vowed to resist ceding control.

Palestinian Reservations: The Palestinians are suspicious of any attempts to maintain an Israeli presence in territories occupied in 1967. The territory currently controlled by Yasser Arafatís Palestinian Authority is dispersed and intersected by Israeli civilian and military installations, diminishing the viability of that administrationís control.

Jerusalem's Holy Sites

Ground zero in the current intifada is a hill in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. That precious piece of real estate contains the ruins of Judaismís holiest temple, on top of which stands the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, Islamís third-holiest site. Last year's Camp David talks broke down over the issue of which side would have national sovereignty over the land on which the holy sites stand.

Clintonís Proposal: The president is reportedly suggesting that the Palestinians be given sovereignty over the Islamic sites at the top of the hill, but that Israel be given sovereignty of the Jewish sites beneath including the Western Wall of the temple.

Israeli Reservations: Ceding control even over the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is a red line for many Israelis, and sovereignty over the Temple Mount is non-negotiable. So much so that after accepting President Clintonís plan in principle, Prime Minister Barak went to great lengths to insist he would not sign any document that gave the Palestinians sovereignty over the prized hill.

Palestinian Reservations: Besides Palestinians' historic territorial claims on Jerusalem's Old City — it was under Jordanian control until the 1967 war — the presence there of the Islamic holy sites make the issue a red line not only for Palestinians, but for the entire Arab world. Arafat was unable to compromise at Camp David on his demand for sovereignty over the sites and the eastern portion of the city, and he's unlikely to be more accommodating after three months of an uprising explicitly dedicated to reclaiming Jerusalem.

Palestinian Refugees and the 'Right of Return'

There are some 4 million Palestinians currently registered with the United Nations as refugees. These are descendents of the almost 1 million Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948 during that country's war of independence, and were precluded by Israeli law from returning to their homes. A United Nations resolution of that year recognizes their right to return to their homes, but Israel has refused to countenance that possibility for fear that this would mortally challenge Israel's majority-Jewish character.

Clinton's Proposal: Reports suggest that President Clinton is proposing that the Palestinians abandon the claims of the refugees, in exchange for a deal that recognizes Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem.

Israeli Reservations: Israel would have few reservations with this proposal, as it accords with their basic position. Previously, proposals had been raised of allowing some 10,000 Palestinian refugees to rejoin their families inside Israel as a "humanitarian gesture," and of financial compensation for refugees funded by Western donors. But the "right of return" principle for Israel is a non-starter.

Palestinian Reservations: While Arafat has been prepared to put the issue on the backburner over the past decade, the current intifada makes that more difficult. The issue cuts to the core of Palestinian national identity — the displacement of Palestinians that was integral to the creation of a Jewish state. Many of those refugees currently reside in Arab states who have no interest in bearing the burden of their absorption, which creates additional pressure on Arafat not to compromise on this issue. The growing challenge to the Palestinian leader's authority in the West Bank and Gaza also militates against compromise; Arafat is well aware that signing away the refugees' claims would all but invite them to reconstitute the PLO in exile with the backing of more hostile states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, and to further challenge Arafatís authority in his own backyard. And after three months of bloodletting, the Palestinian leader knows such challengers may find a receptive audience. All of which militates against him accepting the president's deal.