Jerusalem was almost lost in July 2000, when the future of its ancient Old City was first put on the negotiating table. President Bill Clinton convened what would become a fifteen-day marathon summit at Camp David to fully resolve, once and for all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis and Palestinians were sealed off in the presidential retreat in Maryland and pressured to hammer out a final agreement. The whole event was a political long shot. Relations between the leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, were close to hostile and the pre-summit preparation was poor. Nevertheless, Barak agreed to a stunning proposal - Israel would cede to the Palestinians sovereignty over most of East Jerusalem's suburbs, sovereignty over the Old City's Muslim and Christian quarters, and "custodianship" over Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount. Since the Israel Defense Forces had captured Jerusalem's Old City in the Six-Day War in June 1967, no Israeli prime minister had proposed re-dividing the city. Now, it was happening.
Barak's willingness to partition the Old City was especially astounding, as this was the spiritual heart of Israel's capital. A walled enclave located just inside the former border designating the eastern half of the city, the Old City occupies just over half a square mile and is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters. It is home to some of the holiest sites of the world's three major Abrahamic religions. The Temple Mount is the most sensitive location. A hilltop platform complex, the thirty-five-acre Temple Mount is the former location of the Biblical First Temple (the Temple of Solomon), which stood from the tenth century BCE until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was constructed on the same site and stood from 515 BCE until the Romans demolished it in 70 CE. The Temple Mount is now largely off-limits for organized Jewish prayer, which instead is conducted at the Western Wall, a retaining wall from the Second Temple located adjacent to and just below the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount is also the third holiest site to Muslims, who refer to it as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). It is now home to two major Islamic shrines. The first of these, the Dome of the Rock, built in the late seventh century, houses the rock from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven to receive the commandment for Muslim prayers. The second site is the al-Aqsa mosque, the largest mosque in Jerusalem, completed in the early eighth century. Not far from the Temple Mount, in the Christian quarter, stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was originally built by Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century at Golgotha, the site where Jesus was crucified. The church is venerated by Christians as the location of Jesus' tomb and is a major site for Christian pilgrimage,
When Barak was proposing the city's redivision at Camp David, most Israelis still remembered that after seizing East Jerusalem in 1948, Jordan's Arab Legion completely evicted the Jewish population from the Old City. The Jewish Quarter was set aflame, its homes were looted, and dozens of synagogues were destroyed or vandalized. Tombstones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were converted into latrines. For the following nineteen years, Jews were prevented from praying at their holy sites, including the Western Wall. The Jordanians also barred Christian institutions from buying land and otherwise restricted the rights of Jerusalem's Christian population, which dropped by over 50 percent during the period of Jordanian rule. Upon capturing the Old City in 1967, Israel decided on a new approach to governing the city - it adopted a law protecting the holy sites of all religions and guaranteeing their free access to all worshipers.
Barak's mentor, the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, had declared in October 1995 that Jerusalem must always remain the united capital of Israel. He proclaimed this during his very last parliamentary speech, one month before his assassination. Rabin was born in Jerusalem and had commanded the victorious Israeli forces that unified the city in 1967. He understood that only Israel could safeguard Jerusalem's freedom. Enjoying bipartisan support in Washington for years, Rabin's position on a united Jerusalem was endorsed by the U.S. Senate in 1995 in the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which passed by an overwhelming 93 to 5 margin. Its co-sponsors included both parties' senatorial leaders, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle - two politicians who agreed on little else. Jerusalem looked like a closed issue. Yet now with the Camp David proposals, Arafat suddenly had over half of Jerusalem's Old City within his grasp.
Barak was playing a dangerous diplomatic chess game with Rabin's legacy and with the history of his own people. His offer to Arafat is inexplicable in light of his advance knowledge, gleaned from his military intelligence chiefs, that Arafat had no intention whatsoever of making peace. Additionally, the threat of violence hung in the air. Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, had warned in a Tel Aviv speech two months before Camp David that failure to advance the peace process would likely lead to an armed confrontation; indeed, while Berger was speaking, skirmishes between armed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers had already broken out. Furthermore, Arafat's agents for psychological warfare were running summer camps where, according to The New York Times, tens of thousands of Palestinian teenagers were "learning the arts of kidnapping, ambushing and using assault weapons." The environment was hardly conducive to making peace.
Barak, moreover, had lost his parliamentary majority back home. Given the unprecedented concessions he planned for Camp David, Natan Sharansky - who had spent nine years in a Soviet prison camp, fortifying his hopes by reciting the ancient Jewish incantation "Next Year in Jerusalem" - led a revolt as three parties abandoned Barak's coalition. Even Barak's own foreign minister, David Levy, refused to accompany him to Camp David and resigned shortly after the summit. In fact, Barak's flight to Washington was delayed due to a no-confidence vote in his government held just before take-off. Thus, Clinton was convening a high-stakes summit at which his Israeli partner had no mandate to surrender parts of the Israeli capital.
What, then, were Barak's real intentions? If Arafat agreed to his proposals, Barak would bring the Israeli people a historic peace treaty formally ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. He would then be in a strong position to call new elections. If Arafat refused, Barak calculated that the Palestinian leader would be exposed before the entire world as the main obstacle to a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace. Barak tried to control the risks by making his proposals indirectly to Arafat through Clinton, so that his offers could not be pocketed as a binding commitment by Israel to surrender Jerusalem. And he took solace that the negotiations were based on the principle that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." If refused at Camp David, the unprecedented Israeli offer would be off the table - at least in theory.
Ultimately, the Camp David summit ended in total failure after Arafat rejected Barak's overture. But Jerusalem's fate still hung in the balance for the remainder of Clinton's presidency. In his final weeks in office, Clinton acted upon Palestinian requests to develop "bridging proposals" on all the disputed subjects, including Jerusalem. In November 2000, two days after the election of George W. Bush, a lame-duck Clinton told Arafat, "I've got ten weeks left in office and want to use that time to produce a comprehensive agreement, a historical agreementâ€¦." The clock was ticking for Clinton, and his negotiators worked furiously to secure a momentous peace agreement for his legacy. This urgency would affect the fate of Jerusalem, for Israel's negotiating position was further shaved down with each new negotiating round.
Clinton's peacemaking efforts were completely removed from events on the ground. On September 29, 2000, barely a month after the Camp David summit ended, Arafat used a visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon, then head of Barak's parliamentary opposition, as a pretext for launching a long, violent insurrection. Palestinians rioted in response to Sharon's visit, leaving over two dozen Israeli police injured. The next day, 22,000 Palestinian worshipers gathered for Friday prayers on the Temple Mount. Subsequent investigations revealed that Palestinian agents incited some of the worshipers to attack Jews praying at the Western Wall below with stones that had been secured in advance. It was the eve of Rosh Hashana - the Jewish New Year - and Israel was forced to evacuate the packed Western Wall plaza, which was quickly carpeted with rocks.
Arafat called his new war "the al-Aqsa intifada." The name was intentionally misleading, implying the Temple Mount's al-Aqsa mosque was in danger. It also reflected an effort to mobilize the Palestinians and to signal to the wider Arab world the start of a campaign to capture Jerusalem. The PLO's Radio Palestine called on Palestinians to rush to defend the Temple Mount, while Hamas, the terror organization that began as the Palestinian branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, distributed leaflets to the same effect. Since that time, Israelis have suffered a never-ending wave of Palestinian sniper, rocket, and suicide bombing attacks, mostly directed at civilians.
The Palestinians claimed the violence began as a spontaneous reaction to Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. But Arafat's minister of communications, Imad Faluji, freely admitted the planned, organized nature of the campaign to a Lebanese Arabic newspaper: "Whoever thinks the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong," he declared. "This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations." And Jewish holy sites were clearly a priority target. Following a week of gunbattles around Joseph's Tomb - the burial site of the Biblical patriarch - Israeli troops withdrew from the area on October 7 after Palestinian police officials promised to protect the tomb. The policemen then stood aside and watched as a Palestinian mob looted and demolished the shrine. If Arafat was waging this sort of war - stoning Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall and destroying other holy sites - could he be depended upon to safeguard the holy sites of the world's three great faiths in Jerusalem?
WHY THE CLINTON TEAM SOUGHT TO DIVIDE JERUSALEM
What drove the Clinton administration to continue advocating new, even more dramatic proposals for dividing Jerusalem under such conditions? Some argue it was purely out of concern for Clinton's legacy. Clinton had earlier tied the prestige of his presidency to the Middle Eastern peace process. On September 13, 1993, he had stood with then Israeli prime minister Rabin and PLO chairman Arafat on the White House lawn, stretching his arms around them in an approving embrace as the two shook hands. The famous ceremony had marked both sides' agreement to the Declaration of Principles. The signing of this document, hammered out secretly by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators over the previous nine months in Norway, had launched the Oslo Peace Process. Clinton had made a huge political investment in this process over the following seven years. Certainly, he wanted to forestall its total collapse.
To be fair, Clinton did not initiate the Camp David meeting; it was Barak who repeatedly insisted on convening the high-risk summit. In fact, Clinton was at first a reluctant host, fearing American prestige would be damaged if the summit failed. According to diplomatic practice, the U.S. president only joins peace-making negotiations once the parties have already bridged most of their differences. But despite the huge gaps that remained on the eve of Camp David, Clinton and Barak became locked in a diplomatic embrace that kept them engaged, even when each had serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing. For most of the Clinton peace team, achieving a peace settlement - any peace settlement - became a goal in and of itself.
Aside from presidential prestige, there were clearly policy considerations driving U.S. engagement as well. One American school of thought had always maintained that an Arab-Israeli peace settlement would be a panacea for the problems of the entire region from Morocco to Iran. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for example, described Barak's initial Camp David concessions on Jerusalem as nothing less than "a breakthrough that could change the whole future of the Middle East." And occasionally, specific U.S. interests were raised. During the Oslo period, some policymakers argued that Arab-Israeli peacemaking would help the U.S. create Arab coalitions for the dual containment of Iraq and Iran. They adhered to this view despite the highly questionable premise that Arab states would risk vital interests by agreeing to a U.S. military presence simply because an ideological grievance of theirs had been addressed.
Then there was the issue of terrorism. Outside of the peace team, some high-ranking U.S. government officials hoped that in his last months in office Clinton would attack Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Richard Clarke of the National Security Council later recalled, "Time was running out on the Clinton administration. There was going to be one last major national security initiative and it was going to be a final try to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement." Thus Clinton apparently chose to court Arafat at the expense of going after bin Laden. In theory there was no reason why he couldn't do both. But as Clarke implies, every administration needs a primary focus. So Clinton put all his chips on brokering a deal between Arafat and Barak.
Clarke consoled himself with the logic behind the administration's choice: "If we could achieve a Middle East peace much of the popular support for al Qaeda and much of the hatred for America would evaporate overnight." But the evidence for his analysis was thin. Heavy U.S. engagement in Arab-Israeli peacemaking since 1993 had not reduced al Qaeda's rage one iota; indeed, its attacks on U.S. interests continually escalated during the very same period. Notably, just two months after Camp David, al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in Yemen, killing seventeen U.S. sailors.
As the Clinton team pressed ahead with new peace proposals after Camp David and elicited further Israeli concessions, al Qaeda continued to plan and train for its ultimate operation - the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. There simply was no correlation between America's Middle Eastern peacekeeping efforts and the motivation of al Qaeda. Nonetheless, some administration officials continued to link the two issues, insisting that ever more Israeli concessions would help put out the flames of anti-Western hostility or at least lower their intensity.
Jerusalem and the struggle against Israel were not irrelevant to al Qaeda and other jihadist networks; they were simply not their highest priority, as Professor Bernard Lewis noted in 1998. For the leading architects of al Qaeda's strategy, other stages in the battle against the West would precede the jihad against the Jewish state. For example, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden's Palestinian mentor, argued in his book From Kabul to Jerusalem that the liberation of Afghanistan was a precursor to the war for Jerusalem.
After Azzam was assassinated in 1989, bin Laden's most influential ideological associate became Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of an Egyptian jihadist group who would become bin Laden's deputy in 1998. Like Azzam, al-Zawahiri put off the struggle for Jerusalem to the distant future. Echoing Azzam's strategy in a 1995 article entitled "The Way to Jerusalem Passes through Cairo," al-Zawahiri argued that the worldwide jihad had to begin by vanquishing the anti-Islamist regimes across the Arab world - what he called the "Near Enemy." Jerusalem, he wrote, "will not be opened until the battles in Egypt and Algeria have been won and until Cairo has been opened."
Despite mounting concerns about terrorism, Clinton remained focused on the Oslo Process through the end of his presidency. By late December 2000, he had privately laid out to both sides a comprehensive plan to solve the conflict's "core issues." This was not, ostensibly, a formal U.S. proposal, but rather an outline of the feasible "parameters" of a peace settlement. Clinton again insisted on dividing the Old City between Israel and the Palestinians, but this time he offered the Palestinians sovereignty over the Temple Mount, as opposed to the more limited Camp David offer of custodianship. The Western Wall would remain under Israeli jurisdiction, while control of the Christian Quarter, with its holy sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, would go to Arafat.
Regarding the rest of East Jerusalem, Clinton moved past the Camp David proposal of Palestinian sovereignty over most of the suburbs. Instead, he recommended Palestinian sovereignty over all neighborhoods populated by Palestinians and Israeli sovereignty over areas inhabited by Jews; given the city's demographics, the plan would have turned Jerusalem into a chessboard of sovereignties, with different governments controlling the equivalent of the red and black squares. Clinton gave both sides four days to accept or reject his ideas. He added that if either side turned down the "Clinton Parameters," they would be pulled off the table - it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Arafat rejected the plan in a letter written to Clinton on December 25, 2000, refusing to concede even Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall. Ignoring his own vow to discontinue the initiative, Clinton invited Arafat to Washington for further consultations.
At the White House on January 2, 2001, Arafat once again rejected Clinton's plan. Yet Clinton still kept the proposal on the table, even publicizing its contents for the first time in a speech at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel on January 7, 2001 - just under two weeks before the end of his presidency. The details, however, had already reached the public by then. In late December, Israel's chief of staff (and later defense minister), Lt. General Shaul Mofaz, had told the Israeli cabinet that the Clinton Parameters, if implemented, would endanger Israel's security. This harsh assessment was splashed across the headlines of Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, on December 29.
Despite Barak's conditional acceptance of the Clinton plan, Israelis rallied against it. On January 8, over 400,000 Israelis gathered outside the walls of the Old City to protest the proposed division of Jerusalem in the largest demonstration in Israeli history. Israeli officials seemed oblivious to the furious public backlash against their diplomacy. The negotiations had taken on a momentum of their own, as Israel crossed one diplomatic "red-line" after another. Some Israeli officials even explored the idea of crafting a UN Security Council resolution incorporating parts of Clinton's plan for Jerusalem, thus having Barak's concessions locked in by the international community's leading authority.
Within weeks, however, the threat to Jerusalem's unity was lifted - at least for the time being. Clinton was replaced on January 20, 2001, by George W. Bush, who had no inclination to continue Clinton's fruitless diplomacy. Around three weeks later, on February 7, Barak was forced to call new elections due to the loss of his parliamentary majority just before Camp David. He was replaced as prime minister by Ariel Sharon in the biggest electoral landslide in Israeli history. The Bush administration formally notified Sharon's representatives that Clinton's ideas were history. Barak's concessions were not binding, since no agreements were signed. Bush brought a new approach to the issue. He would not invite Arafat to the White House for pointless meetings. (Indeed, given Arafat's role in directing Palestinian violence, Bush wouldn't even shake his hand.) Although Bush did not explicitly commit himself to keeping Jerusalem united, he clearly was abandoning the Camp David legacy.
Sharon first met President Bush in the Oval Office on June 26, 2001. The two agreed that the Clinton Parameters would not be the starting point for future negotiations. Accepting Sharon's premise that Israel should not negotiate under fire, Bush informed his Israeli partner that he was not going to impose on Israel any more onerous peace plans. With the intifada raging, the U.S. would no longer obsessively court Yasser Arafat. As for Jerusalem, in public and in private Sharon presented a new, unequivocal Israeli position: "Jerusalem will remain united under the sovereignty of Israel."
The writer heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is also the author of Hatred's Kingdom, which analyzes the growth of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia.