Jerusalem: Why it's hard to split

While Israeli and Palestinian leaders readied yesterday for another grueling day of negotiations on the future of Jerusalem, Meir Ben-Yishai, who runs a clothing store here, was opening his prayer book to demonstrate why the holy city belongs to Israel.

Like observant Jews all over the world, Mr. Ben-Yishai mentions Jerusalem at least six times a day in his prayers - three times during grace after meals, and in the silent benedictions of the morning, afternoon, and evening services.

He cradles the book and says: "There is nothing to talk about when it comes to Jerusalem, it belongs to the Jews."

In Camp David, Md., however, the subject - which nearly brought the talks to an end yesterday - is very much under discussion, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attempting, unsuccessfully at press time, to find a formula in which neither one is seen as caving in on an issue that cuts to the heart of the national identities of Palestinians and Israelis and the religious identities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Jews pray at their faith's holiest shrine, the Western Wall. Muslims pray at the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. And millions of Christians visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected.

As each leader well knows, at stake is not only the future of the region, but their own political survival and historical legacy.

For Mr. Barak, the problem with making concessions emanates from an explosive fusion of religion, nationalism, and politics.

"The battle for Jerusalem is purely an emotional battle, but emotions are being used by the Israeli right to return to power," says Zeev Sternhell, a Hebrew University professor. Ariel Sharon, the Likud party leader, has already charged Barak with conceding on the unity of the city, a cardinal tenet of Israeli politics since 1967.

While always religiously resonant, Jerusalem moved to the fore of Israeli nationalism after the 1967 Middle East war, when Israeli troops captured the Old City along with the rest of the West Bank.

Politically, it was used to legitimize Israel's hold on the West Bank, according to its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish civilization.

Following the blow to biblical nationalism from the launch of Palestinian rule in 1994, the unity of Jerusalem lived on as the only nationalist issue where the right wing could make a stand to draw voters, according to Mr. Sternhell. Since the Israeli left had joined the right in proclaiming, ever since 1967, that all of the city is Israel's "eternal, undivided" capital, the public has internalized an uncompromising stance on the city's future, which is now coming back to haunt Barak, he suggests.

In Sternhell's view, Barak does not subscribe to the traditional view on Jerusalem's unity, "but at the same time, he knows that there is going to be a new election and that it will be very difficult. He's dealing here with the fate of the peace agreement."

Mr. Arafat must also bear the weight of Muslim religious and Palestinian nationalist ties to Jerusalem. The ties are based on the Prophet Mohammed's sacred journey, in which he ascended to heaven from Jerusalem's Haram Sharif.

"Ever since I was born I knew about the shrine. It's a part of my identity. I always love seeing it. I feel good when I see it. It reminds me of the prophet," says Edward Khader, a resident of the Muslim quarter.

Adds Ayoub Ismail, a restaurant worker: "All of the Muslims are linked to these holy places. There can be no concessions."

In the view of Palestinian academic Khalil Shikaki, Arafat has to take into account a constituency of a billion Muslims when he sits at the table with Barak. Any deal seen as giving up on the Muslim holy places will undermine his legitimacy throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, says Mr. Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Surveys in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"Will [Egypt's] President Mubarak, who has his own troubles with Islamic [militants] want to associate with him if he is seen as selling out?" Shikaki asks.

Among the Palestinians, it would also be impossible to accept a relinquishing of the holy sites, Shikaki says. "These holy places are what make Palestinians different from any other Arabs," explains Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Surveys in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "Jerusalem is not Haifa and it's not Ramallah. It would be suicidal for Arafat not to get Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim holy places."

In the Old City's Christian Quarter, storekeeper Sami Wakileh says he is not optimistic that the Jewish and Muslim negotiators will come up with a compromise. "Jews here say we'll rebuild our temple and it's our holy city. Christians say Jesus will come back and it's our holy city. The Muslims say it's an Islamic area. This is a very difficult combination. If anyone has any good ideas about this, they should use them. At Camp David, no one wants to say no or yes so how will they make a solution?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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