After the Handshake: What Next? Too Hot to Handle Right Now: Mideast Pact Defers Key Issues

September 19, 1993|By MARK MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON P PTC — Washington.--For all the signs of a new chapter in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, there are key issues that everyone agrees are too hot to handle right now.

Dubbed "final status" questions, they have been put off until a new phase of talks begins in two years: the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, refugees and Palestinian statehood.

The idea, perhaps even the genius, behind the interim Israeli-Palestinian settlement is that it will allow a period of adjustment for people on both sides to start viewing each other in a new way.

It is hoped that Israelis will stop seeing Palestinians as threats to their personal security and that Palestinians will stop viewing Israelis as occupiers trampling their rights and livelihoods.

Then, once a live-and-let-live attitude takes root, the really tough issues can be tackled more calmly.

But tackled they must be, or they will remain flash-points of future Arab-Israeli conflict and undermine the whole effort at reconciliation.

The most volatile is Jerusalem. Mere prose can't convey the powerful attachment to the ancient city among both Israelis and Arabs, glorified and grieved over in prayer and verse.

For Jews, it has always been their holiest site, the deepest of biblical roots in the land of Israel and a beacon of hope during centuries of wandering. In the words of Psalm 137:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest shrine after Mecca and Medina. It is the Farthest Mosque, the place where the Prophet Mohammed was transported in a night journey and acquainted with earlier divine revelations and the spiritual mysteries of the human soul. The account is important as a lesson for human spiritual development.

The city also remains a precious religious shrine for many Christians. It was divided until the 1967 war; West Jerusalem was part of Israel and East Jerusalem, which includes the ancient walled city, was ruled by Jordan. In the war, Israel seized and incorporated East Jerusalem.

The official positions would seem to be unbridgeable. Palestinians see it as the future capital of Palestine. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, before toning down his rhetoric for American and Israeli audiences, proclaimed that the Palestinian flag would fly atop its minarets and cathedrals.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

The idea, perhaps even the genius, behind the interim Israeli-Palestinian settlement is that it will allow a period of adjustment.

retorted that an undivided Jerusalem would remain Israel's capital forever and that Mr. Arafat "can forget about it."

End of subject? Perhaps, but both sides have agreed to negotiate, and there are some facts and principles with which to start negotiating.

One is that besides being a holy city, Jerusalem is a throbbing little metropolis with the typical urban problems of traffic, crime and old infrastructure that demand cooperation among Arabs and Israelis.

Another is the general sense that the holy places ought to be administered by the different faiths, with free access for believers and no physical barriers.

Third, there are relatively old settlements in the suburbs of East Jerusalem that are home to at least 120,000 Jews. Palestinians, says Brookings Institution Mideast expert William Quandt, appear to understand that these are not going to be removed.

The key then, say some experts, is to find a formula for bolstering Palestinian control over Arab areas of the city enough to provide the trappings of a capital without rendering Israeli sovereignty meaningless. Most ideas offered share some creative obfuscation.

Separate boroughs with a strong measure of autonomy might work, since predominantly Arab and Jewish areas are quite clearly delineated. Another idea, cited by Mr. Quandt, is to expand Jerusalem's boundaries to include Ramallah and Bethlehem on the West Bank and then separate this greater city into Jewish and Arab administrative divisions.

A suggestion mentioned in "No Trumpets, No Drums," by scholars Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh, calls for increasing the power of municipal government, shared by Israelis and Arabs, to take over many state functions.

No one disputes the pain involved, but not everyone is pessimistic.

"Personally, I think it is large enough -- as a moral issue and as a physical entity -- to work out a shared presence," says Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia.

"We can imagine a situation where East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state and West Jerusalem the capital of Israel without dividing the city," says Egypt's Ambassador to Washington, Ahmed Maher El Sayed -- not a not a melting pot but a "meeting point."

"It should be a place where people meet and cooperate and coexist and worship and learn how to live together."

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