Jersusalem the Golden stands in way of peace

Impasse: World's sacred city is last issue that Camp David negotiators cannot handle yet.

July 21, 2000

HOW AWFUL that the place sacred to the most people in the world, itself a symbol of peace, is also very real -- rocks and traffic and swarms of humanity -- and the reason peace in the Middle East still eludes those who search hardest together in good faith for it.

The banner headline across Page One of the Washington Post's home edition yesterday, "Mideast Summit Fails Over Jerusalem," may yet prove prescient and come true in the end. Jerusalem has defeated its conquerors before.

The city is central to Judaism, capital of modern Israel and its biblical antecedents, sacred to Christianity, second only to Mecca as shrine of Islam.

As the Psalmist sang in exile, "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." Sacred text to Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism.

Where history, for what it may be worth, would seem to favor the Israeli side of the current argument is not in the holiness of the city but its political character. Jerusalem, capital of David's kingdom, is Israel's only conceivable capital, no matter what the U.S. State Department may say.

In more than a thousand years of Muslim stewardship, Jerusalem was often favored, never a capital. If Palestine is not an Islamic but a secular state, however, successor to the British mandate, Jerusalem is its logical capital as well.

Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat stayed at Camp David to settle a war after 52 years of conflict. They never thought it would be easy, but must have thought it possible. As polled, the majority of both their constituencies want peace and to get on with their lives. A powerful minority capable of overthrowing each opposes the concessions necessary. Compromise requires each side to swallow what it proclaims even now to be unacceptable.

Mr. Barak played brinkmanship Wednesday, with his letter to President Clinton blaming Mr. Arafat and phone calls telling Israeli journalists to prepare to fly home. Mr. Clinton not only extended his stay, he phoned King Abdullah in Amman, Jordan, to enlist his influence on both men.

If each leader needs to be seen withstanding pressure from Mr. Clinton before conceding anything, that dynamic has changed somewhat. Now, they also worry about violence in the absence of agreement. Each state is so dependent on U.S. goodwill that it must fear being blamed by Washington for failure. Not only hope but fear can motivate success.

So hold that final headline. World crisis in the end is like baseball: It ain't over 'til it's over.

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