Mideast peace: down to the wire

Israeli and Palestinian leaders, scheduled meet at Camp David today, will try to settle the final-status peace issues.

If Israel relinquishes control of any parts of Jerusalem as part of a Palestinian peace deal, it will likely include the Shuafat Refugee Camp.

In this area of East Jerusalem, 8,000 Palestinians live in squalid conditions, and their population growth is far outpacing that of their Jewish neighbors. In the so-called battle of the wombs, Arabs are winning this part of the city.

The partition of Jerusalem is perhaps the most sensitive of five key "red line" issues driving today's summit at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Seeking to end their 52-year conflict, the two leaders must address the final - and most intractable - obstacles to peace set out in the 1993 Oslo accords: Palestinian refugees, borders, Jewish settlements, and the status of Jerusalem.

The last is considered possibly the most contentious, and officials implied over the Mideast leaders confront most rigid obstacles to peace weekend that if the status of Jerusalem cannot be resolved now, with the Sept. 13 deadline for a final peace treaty looming, the whole process may crumble.

Israel claims Jerusalem as its indivisible capital. But Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, as the capital of the state they intend to declare by the end of this year.

Both sides have much at stake. Mr. Barak had to delay his departure for the United States yesterday because of a scheduled no-confidence vote in parliament. The vote came after three coalition partners - the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, his largest coalition partner with 17 seats; the Russian immigrants party Yisrael B'Aliya; and the National Religious Party left the government in protest over the summit. In addition, Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, said he was boycotting the summit.

Divided capital?

Mr. Arafat has promised his people a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. And the residents of the Shuafat Refugee Camp in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem are proof that despite Israeli claims to the contrary, the status quo of the Jewish state's complete control over all of Jerusalem is becoming untenable.

The reason: Palestinian population growth in Israel's self-declared "eternal, undivided capital" has outstripped that of Jews to such an extent that Israel is losing its clear Jewish majority in the holy city.

Traditionally, Israel's position has been that when it comes to Jerusalem, there is not much to discuss. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and its Palestinian inhabitants after it captured East Jerusalem, including the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, during the 1967 War.

But an Israeli government official said during an interview last month that each side would need to make compromises during the talks on Jerusalem's future. "Keeping [old] positions means that there is no solution and no compromise," the official, who requested anonymity, said.

Even as it expropriated land and built subsidized housing for 150,000 Jews in the annexed area, Israel was being defeated by the battle of the wombs. Immediately after the annexation, Jerusalem's population was 74 percent Jewish, while today only 69 percent of its 633,700 inhabitants are Jewish. Jerusalem's Arab population has grown by 190 percent since 1967, while the Jewish population has grown by 119 percent, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

"If Israel is concerned with keeping its identity as a Jewish state, the logic is to exclude as many Palestinians as possible from the Israeli authority," says Menachem Klein, an analyst at the institute. He is among a growing number of scholars who favor redrawing Jerusalem's boundaries to give Arab parts of the city to Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) as part of a final-status agreement.

"I have said that Jerusalem is holy to me, but not everything which is today called Jerusalem should be defined as sacred," says Yossi Katz, a Labor Party Member of the Knesset. Mr. Katz says he would like to see Israel relinquish Arab neighborhoods to the PA while annexing the nearby West Bank Jewish settlements of Maale Adumim and Givat Ze'ev to the municipality's jurisdiction.

A quid pro quo?

Prominent Labor leaders have avoided publicly backing Katz, the party's liaison to the Palestinians, either because they differ with him, or more likely, because they fear this would lay them open to right-wing accusations of a sell-out. Likud leader Ariel Sharon charged in an interview with Israel Television Friday evening that Barak has "given up" to Palestinian negotiators on all issues, including Jerusalem's unity.

Jerusalem's Likud mayor, Ehud Olmert, rejects the demographic reasoning behind a redrawing of the city's boundaries. "If someone wants the state of Israel to be empty of Arabs, why doesn't he also suggest giving up the Galilee, the triangle, Acre, and Jaffa," Olmert said through a spokesman, referring to predominantly Arab areas of the country.

"Clear boundaries need to be set. Jerusalem is not up for division, and it will remain that way," he said.

Even Katz's position, however, is still far short of traditional Palestinian demands for a return of all territory captured in 1967, including the walled Old City with its sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ahmed Batsh, a Palestinian legislator from Jerusalem, termed Katz's approach "a small positive step" but added that Israel would have to withdraw from all of East Jerusalem.

The logical starting point for giving up areas to the PA would be the Shuafat refugee camp, the only one in sovereign Israeli territory and a perceived burden in the eyes of Israeli officials.

A young man who repairs flat tires in the camp said he is hoping the Palestinian Authority will take over and take action against rampant drug use and crime there.

"From a nationalist point of view, it would be better to have the authority here," added the man, who identified himself as Abu Musa.

Other residents prefer to stay under Israeli rule, with its health insurance, social security payments, and greater freedom of speech.

"Most people think it will be worse under the Palestinian Authority because they see how it rules in Gaza and Ramallah," said Issa Theodori, who works in the refugee camp. "If you are rich, you can do anything there, but if you are weak, all the problems come down on you."

"It is better with Israel here," added another man. Referring to the rule by personal connections, or wasta, that has become a PA hallmark.

"There is no law there, and the big eats the small," the man added. "In Israel, I can say whatever I want, I can say that Barak is a dog. But if I say something [in a PA area] about Arafat, the authority will arrest me."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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