A LITTLE-NOTICED policy shift by the Clinton administration on Jerusalem has implications beyond the fate of one city in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It marks a retrenchment in the American commitment to international law and the authority of the United Nations.
The United States abstained from a section of a recent UN Security Council resolution condemning the February Hebron mosque massacre, objecting to a paragraph that referred to the Arab part of Jerusalem as occupied territory. This eastern half of Jerusalem was seized by the Israeli Army in June of 1967, along with the rest of the West Bank, which was controlled by Jordan.
Israel soon annexed this Arab portion of the city, along with a large area of adjoining countryside. The action was condemned by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. The US joined virtually the entire international community in declaring the annexation ``null and void,'' the language later employed on Iraq's annexation of Kuwait.
Presidents from Nixon to Bush declared that Jerusalem was part of the Israeli occupation subjected to UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the 1967 war in return for security guarantees from neighboring Arab states. Indeed, these resolutions explicitly reiterate the longstanding principle of international law regarding the illegality of expanding territory through military force.
Almost no one wants Jerusalem returned to its 1948-67 status, when it was divided by barbed wire and snipers, with Israelis and Palestinians unable to cross.
However, there are other options, including making Jerusalem an international city as originally called for by the UN in 1947. A joint Israeli-Palestinian administration, or a repartitioning of the city along its original dividing line is also possible - with full access by residents of both sides.
Unfortunately, to challenge the fact that Jerusalem is now under military occupation discourages the Israelis from making the necessary compromises and gives license to any nation that seeks to enlarge its territory by force.
Indeed, emboldened by the US abstention in the Security Council, Israel closed off greater East Jerusalem from the West Bank on April 7, creating many hardships for West Bank Palestinians. The Israelis justified the action on security grounds, following two attacks by Palestinian terrorists. However, these attacks occured inside Israel's recognized borders, not in Jerusalem.
Just as Jordanian authorities barred Israeli Jews from their holy sites in Jerusalem prior to 1967, now Israeli authorities bar outside Christian and Muslim Palestinians from theirs.
Yet Jerusalem is not just important for religious reasons. For centuries, it has been the commercial and cultural center of Palestinian society. As the only major city of the West Bank, it is where thousands of Palestinians visit relatives, go to theaters and concerts, shop, and, most important, work. Palestinians who regularly commute from towns nearby to work in Palestinian businesses are now denied entry.
Some 26 years of economic strangulation by Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank has made it impossible for these Palestinians to find alternative employment. This hardship strengthens radicals opposed to the Oslo Accords and increases the likelihood of violence, especially as the Israeli government - bankrolled by the US taxpayer - continues to expand its illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and beyond.
In short, the Clinton administration's policy on Jerusalem threatens both the authority of the UN and fundamental principles of international law. It jeopardizes the peace process, emboldens hard-liners on both sides, and causes suffering for many thousands of Palestinians.
One might think such a policy would create outrage in Congress, which has challenged the irresponsible policies of previous administrations in Central America and Africa. Instead, Congress is pressuring President Clinton from the right. Eighty-two Senators signed a letter calling on the US not just to abstain from but to cast a veto against the recent UN resolution for referring to Jerusalem as occupied territory, even though it was clear such an action would lead to the total collapse of the peace talks.
This is not an issue of being pro-Israel or anti-Israel. Even some of the Jewish state's strongest defenders - including many Israelis - know the dangers inherent in supporting Israel's claim to all Jerusaluem. It is a choice between those who wish to uphold international law and the right of self-determination versus those willing to accept the results of military might and the right of conquest. The Clinton administration is on the wrong side. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.