WASHINGTON — Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his deputies have said that their approach to Arab-Israeli peace-making was "open-ended"; their intent was to avoid "bottom-line" issues. Why is it, then, that the Bush Administration and Israel's government--what's left of it--are now involved in bitter recriminations over the most bottom-line issue of all, Jerusalem?
Why is it that what was to be last on the agenda has become first, leaving confusion, if not ruin, in its wake?
Under pressure from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Egypt to present a "credible" Palestinian representation, Baker had proposed that East Jerusalem Arabs serve on the delegation that was to meet in Cairo for discussing the modalities of West Bank/Gaza elections. Two weeks ago, the prospect for getting those talks going seemed promising, after a compromise formula had been worked out permitting the participation of one or two West Bank residents who own second homes in Jerusalem.
Then came President Bush's unanticipated and still perplexing pronouncement that the U.S. government considers East Jerusalem to be occupied Arab territory, hence off-limits for settlement by immigrant Soviet Jews. That proved to be the last straw for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud Party, which refused to deal any further with the Baker plan unless there were assurances that the PLO would not be the power behind the Palestinian negotiators. Since this was in fact the case, such assurance was impossible. Shimon Peres, eager to project Labor as more pro-peace than Likud, used this as an issue to call for a vote of no-confidence and succeeded in bringing down the Shamir government.
As matters now stand, the chances are slim that Peres, if he were to lead the new government, could deliver more than his predecessor. Probably the reverse is true, since, unlike Shamir, Peres would not be able to control the center or the right in the Knesset.
Nor is there any capital to be gained by disguising the fact that President Bush's pronouncements, if pursued, would in fact constitute a significant change in U.S. policy on Jerusalem.
The U.S. position, through successive Administrations, has been to not get involved in the Jerusalem debate--to state that the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only after all other peace issues have been safely put to bed. The United States has kept its distance from efforts for international recognition of East Jerusalem as occupied territory, no different from the rest of the occupied West Bank. Thus President Jimmy Carter repudiated the vote of his chief U.N. delegate, Ambassador Donald McHenry, for a U.N. Security Council resolution citing Jerusalem as an "occupied Arab territory." President Ronald Reagan instructed his chief delegate, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, to exercise the U.S. veto on such resolutions in the Security Council.
The Bush Administration appears to be on a different tack. Baker hopes to break the Gordian knot of Arab-Israel relations by getting Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other. That was also Shamir's plan in calling for elections on the West Bank and Gaza. Local elections would establish a local Palestinian leadership, and thus, it was thought, provide the necessary boost to get the Camp David process for West Bank/Gaza autonomy moving again. Five years down the road, negotiations on the final status of the West Bank, Gaza \o7 and \f7 Jerusalem would commence between Israelis and elected Palestinians in a new atmosphere of mutual trust.
This incremental approach made good sense. Baker has sought to expand on it by stretching his imagination to look for new and novel ways of dealing with the problems of citizenship, sovereignty and territoriality as they apply to the West Bank and Gaza. The effort is praiseworthy. But, by adding the Jerusalem issue, the cart has been overloaded.
No Israeli government will voluntarily relinquish claim to all of Jerusalem as the indivisible and eternal capital of Israel. In 1967, when the Knesset decided to take East Jerusalem in response to Jordan's attack, everyone knew that once Israel gained control of that part of the city, with its Jewish Quarter and Wailing Wall, there would be no turning back, even at the price of peace with its Arab neighbors. Since then, Israel has solidified its control over East Jerusalem by vastly changing its character through development of massive apartment complexes. The municipal borders of East Jerusalem have been greatly expanded. The Jewish population of East Jerusalem is nearly as numerous as the Arab.
To propagate the idea that Israel, regardless of which party led the government, would negotiate control of East Jerusalem, is to raise false expectations. It is one thing to have a symbolic East Jerusalem presence in the composition of the Palestinian delegation through the device of dual West Bank/Jerusalem residence. It is quite another to give substance to that symbolism by having presidential announcements that portend, wittingly or not, to change the course of U.S. policy on the status and future of Jerusalem. Disappointment of those expectations, which seems inevitable, can only damage prospects for a conciliation.
A change in U.S. policy on Jerusalem in hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough seems destined to provide only illusory and short-lived benefit. It is better to restore the issue of Jerusalem to last on the agenda--not only for Arabs and Israelis, but also for American peacemakers.