WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat had long known they could solve most of their problems - the creation of a Palestinian state, the return of Palestinian refugees, the acceptance of Jewish settlements. And, when everything else had been negotiated, there would be the last issue, the ultimate issue - Jerusalem.
That Jerusalem was even on the table at Camp David was something of a miracle. That Israel would concede a political foothold in East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital seemed a miracle beyond reach. This wasn't merely a matter of municipal boundaries, but involved a clash of religions, of ancient traditions. A symbol, perhaps. An icon, perhaps - but with power to change history.
"If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem," said the biblical psalmists, "let my right hand forget her cunning." According to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem was where God made Adam, where Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac. According to Muslim tradition, Jerusalem was where the prophet Muhammed flew in on a winged steed. And to Christians, not to be forgotten, Jerusalem was where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead at the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands.
At Camp David, the parties did their best to address Jerusalem as a political issue. Mr. Arafat demanded a location in East Jerusalem as a capital of the gestating Palestinian state. Israel was ready to let Palestinians run municipal services in the Old City under the label of "autonomy," perhaps even "shared sovereignty." But not real sovereignty over a part of the city that Israel has proclaimed as united, now and forever, Israeli.
And so they bogged down, as they knew they would, unable to compromise the uncompromisable. Under ordinary conditions, the negotiators would then have packed up and gone home, as they almost did until President Clinton summoned them to one more try. They accepted readily because they were afraid to go home empty-handed. Indeed they were afraid they would be damned if they did and damned if they didn't reach an agreement.
Any compromise would likely come under attack from critics at home on both sides. Mr. Barak and Arafat are not Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat who, at Camp David in 1978, counted on enough support in Israel and Egypt to be able to make the final concessions that produced the first Arab-Israeli agreement.
Neither of today's principals could count on majority support. This was not about Gaza or the West Bank and how the territorial pie will be sliced. This was about Jerusalem the golden, a city that, for many, is the center of the cosmos.
And so, in sessions that often lasted late into the night, they labored to negotiate the cosmos. And, Tuesday, they gave up.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society