Washington's latest effort to get Middle East peace talks going again broke down totally over the subject of East Jerusalem. The Israelis refused to put it on the agenda on the ground that East Jerusalem belongs to Israel and so there is nothing to discuss or negotiate over. The Egyptians asserted that East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Arab West Bank and must be discussed.
This is an absolute if temporary impasse on a matter of enormous importance both to Israelis and to Arabs. It reflects the fact that the two sides in the Middle East issue are stalling now because they have an important stake in the outcome of the US elections.
Two of the contenders, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, have largely adopted the Israeli position on Jerusalem. Both have favored recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But President Carter has stood by the official US and UN positions that the status of Jerusalem is to be determined by negotiation and that in the meantime East Jerusalem, including the old walled city, is to be treated as being Arab territory occupied by Israeli armed forces.
The Israelis can assume from what the candidates have been saying that they will have US support for their desire to own the whole of the area they now call Jerusalem if Mr. Reagan or Mr. Anderson is the next President of the United States. The Arabs have equal reason to think that if Mr. Carter is re-elected Washington will try to be "evenhanded" on the touchy matter of East jerusalem.
For anyone wishing to understand the stakes the following might be helpful.
There are in fact three Jerusalems.
First, there is the ancient walled inner city which is of equal importance to the three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It is international and interreligious in its composition. There are four distinct quarters -- Christian, Armenian, Muslim, and Jewish. There are three shrines of equal importance to the three great religions represented there.
To the Jews the Wailing Wall is the very heart of their history. To Islam the Dome of the Rock is the scene of the Prophet's "night journey." It is a shrine almost as important as the Kaba stone at Mecca. To Christians Jerusalem means the Way of the Cross from the place of Pontius Pilate's judgment to presumed scenes of the crucifixion and the resurrection.
All those great shriens are inside the old walled city.
The Latin, Greek, and Coptic Christian patriarchates are also inside the walled city.
Second, there is West Jerusalem. This is a modern city and predominantly Jewish. It is at the tip of the salient which the Israelis drove from their main centers of population along the coast up to the old Jerusalem during the 1947-1948 war. The salient and West Jerusalem just deep into the predominantly Arab-populated West Bank. Both north and south of the salient the territory is Arab.
Third is East Jerusalem -- north, south, and east of the walled city. This is a city of 100,000 Arabs. Its appearance and culture are of the Middle East. It includes the Episcopal cathedral of St. George, the Roman Catholic monastery of Notre Dame de France, and many Christian churches.
The question at issue is whether the Israelis are to extend their salient into the West Bank well beyond West Jerusalem. Previous to the 1967 war they came up to the walled city. Now, they are attempting to surround the Old City by planting modern, high-rise housing units in a semicircle which seems designed to fragment the Arab community. They claim as being part of their Jerusalem a larger area than was previously incorporated in the city. It extends now to within a mile of Bethlehem on the south and takes in the old Jerusalem airport to the north.
West Jerusalem is the third largest ity in Israel in population with 350,000. Haifa and Tel Aviv are larger. East Jerusalem is the largest Arab city in Palestine with 100,000 Arabs. There are virtually no Jews in East Jerusalem except in the modern high-rise buildings which are themselves enclaves in an otherwise Arab community. East Jerusalem is at the hub of the main highways which link the other cities of the Arab West Bank. It was the Arab administrative center for the West Bank during the period of Jordanian rule and was and is still the Arab cultural center. To the Arabs East Jerusalem is as much their capital as West Jerusalem is to the Israelis.
If Israel were to make good its claim on East Jerusalem the highway network of the Arab West Bank community would be cut.Communication between the northern and southern regions would be made more difficult. This would also give Israel total control over all tourist traffic to and from Jerusalem. Jerusalem attracts nearly a million tourists per year. Revenue from tourism is an important feature of the economy both to Israelis and to Arabs.