Despite its ultimate collapse, the Camp David II summit constituted an important breakthrough. Several taboos for Israelis were broken for the first time: the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, the Israeli withdrawal from all settlements in the Gaza Strip and some from the West Bank, the exchange of territory and, finally, the sharing of Jerusalem. As the former Israeli Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, wrote in Ha’aretz: “Israel has participated in talks on Jerusalem that were focused on a partition of the city, even if the word ‘partition’ was not explicitly used. [This has] created an irreversible situation.”

Barak’s Proposals

Postmortems of the summit agree that the issue of Jerusalem was the final stumbling block in the negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian teams. While gaps between them had narrowed on other issues, there was little movement on the Jerusalem issue. The Israeli proposals comprised two main elements: they would relinquish control over the northern Palestinian-dominated suburbs of the city to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and devolve administration in the central areas of East Jerusalem to Palestinian bodies. In exchange, Israel would retain overall sovereignty and security control over East Jerusalem including the Old City, the location of the main Holy Places sacred in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From an uninformed perspective, this proposal surely should have enticed Arafat. The Israelis had never conceded so much. However, as all Palestinians know and as many Israelis who live in the city know too, the Israeli negotiators didn’t offer much more than what the Palestinians already have. The offer was certainly not enough for Palestinians to countenance the surrender of their claims to sovereignty over part of the city.

Since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the neglect of the Palestinian residential areas by both the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem and the central government led to the virtual absence of basic services, infrastructure development and welfare programs. Amir Cheshin, a former Israeli adviser on Arab affairs, tries to wake Israel up to the facts in a recent book: Israel, he says, has already lost the battle for Jerusalem through this ideologically inspired neglect. Palestinian and foreign charitable associations, religious organizations, the PLO and the Jordanian government attempted to fill the vacuum left by the Israeli state. In Palestinian residential areas, the state is visible only through its restrictive planning laws and the security forces.

Already Existing Palestinian Autonomy

Neither did Israeli concessions take into account the extensive autonomy that Palestinians already have in many aspects of life in Jerusalem. The Muslim and Christian Holy Places and significant parts of the Old City are owned and administered by the churches or the Muslim Awqaf Administration. The curricula in Palestinian schools in Jerusalem are almost identical to those in the areas under Palestinian jurisdiction. The water in the northern suburbs is piped in by the Palestinian Ramallah Water Undertaking. Power in all Palestinian areas is supplied by the Palestinian-owned East Jerusalem Electricity Company, and informally, but with the connivance of the Israeli security and military, Palestinian intelligence and policing services operate widely in Palestinian areas.

What has been termed the “partial annexation” of East Jerusalem by Israel continues. Israeli nationality was not imposed upon Palestinian Jerusalemites as it was in other annexed areas. Rather, Palestinians have persistently boycotted Israeli institutions and municipal elections, creating a network of their own institutions–the PLO-run Orient House, the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, the Awqaf Administration and church leadership and a myriad of smaller research and social institutions–which bypass the Israeli Knesset and municipal council. East Jerusalem has been exempted from a raft of Israeli laws, ranging from health and safety regulations to labor laws. The Oslo accords themselves permitted Palestinian Jerusalemites to participate in Palestinian Legislative Council elections as any other Palestinian living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. From the Palestinian perspective, therefore, Israeli “concessions” on Jerusalem were illusions, drawing on a rhetoric of full Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem when that sovereignty does not exist in reality.

International Considerations

The question of international legality frames all these considerations. The Oslo accord signed in September 1993 contradicts itself on the legal basis of negotiations over Jerusalem. On the one hand, the accord is derived from UN resolution 242, which mandates Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. On the other hand, the accord identifies Jerusalem as a final status issue, and not simply East Jerusalem, implying that Palestinian claims to West Jerusalem were also open to discussion. Already playing with a weak hand, Arafat would have been foolish to throw away such pivotal cards.

Arafat was very well aware that in negotiating over Jerusalem, he was negotiating not just for the Palestinian people, but also for the Arab, Islamic and parts of the Christian world, for whom exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city is anathema. The Palestinian position at Camp David consisted of renouncing territorial claims to West Jerusalem, considering a special status for Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and providing safe passage to the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Jewish quarter in the Old City. This position didn’t ask the Israelis to do much more than accept UN resolutions and go slightly beyond the status quo.

The Old City

The particular sticking point at the Camp David summit seems to have been the fate of the Old City. Since 1967, the Old City has witnessed a protracted demographic and architectural struggle that has cast a crippling blight over the non-Jewish areas of the Old City. The demolition of the Moroccan quarter to incorporate a plaza in front of the Western Wall, the expansion of the Jewish quarter and the operations of Israeli settlers dramatically altered the physical and demographic landscape. Palestinian landlords feared the loss of their properties and deep uncertainty permeated poorer areas of the Old City. The Awqaf Administration funded an ambitious residence renovation program that forced up the price of real estate in the Old City, making the acquisition of property by the settler groups more expensive. Very late in the game, Old City churches became aware of the Israeli settler operations that culminated in their occupation of a Greek Orthodox hostel in 1990. Since then, the Christian leadership has sympathized more openly with the Palestinian position on Jerusalem and sought to consolidate its relations with the PA.

The Camp David summit collapsed partly because it ignored these realities in the Old City: high-level horse-trading could not deal with the nuances of authority and control in Jerusalem. The Israelis and the US offered Arafat more than he had anticipated on settlements, refugees and border issues to entice him to accept overall Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. Their tactic failed. Ehud Barak may have surprised many outsiders with his apparent movement on Jerusalem, but the Israeli “concessions” are illusory when measured against the reality on the ground. More taboos will need to be broken in Israel for a reprise of Camp David II to succeed.

How to cite this article:

Mick Dumper "Jerusalem and the Illusion of Israeli Sovereignty," Middle East Report Online, August 04, 2000.

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