Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak continued to voice hope this week of a last-minute peace treaty with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, even as he outlined to New Yorkers his political platform should he be forced into early elections.
Shortly before leaving for Israel to try to put his political house in order, Barak told nearly 400 invited guests at UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan that within the next five weeks he will know whether a peace treaty is in the offing, “even if it takes months to work it out.”
Should a majority of the Knesset, which reconvenes at the end of October following a summer recess, vote for early elections, Barak said he was confident of re-election. He then provided his audience, composed of guests of UJA-Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, with a preview of his election campaign:
n “We’ll say this government promised to pull out of Lebanon and we did.”
n “We promised to turn around the economy and we did.” He cited a “vibrant, growing pace of growth that might be 5 percent this year and even higher next year, with two to three startups each day.”
n “We promised to change the situation of Israel in the world and we did it. … A majority of [world] leaders are with us. We could hear it from President [Bill] Clinton. He described how many world leaders came to him to tell him how much they want to help [the peace process] and how they want to motivate Arafat [to compromise for peace]. He said he had [been president] for seven years and that he usually heard complaints against Israel. … We were isolated in the international arena, did the opposition bring you out?”
n “We promised to leave no stone unturned [for peace] and we did it.”
n “Did we make any concessions? Did we convey Hebron to the Palestinians? Did we decide to give 12 to 15 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians? Did we dismantle all the settlements in the Sinai, or was it the opposition. We didn’t give a square inch [of land].” He said his proposed transfer of two Arab villages to the Palestinians “if the need arose and it did not.”
“If the opposition wants this government to go home, it can raise 61 hands [in the Knesset] and we will go to general elections,” said Barak. “I’m not afraid to go back to the people and fight for their [support]. I do not believe the other side would be happy to go to new elections.”
Should he find the Palestinians unwilling to compromise now for peace, Barak said he would call on the opposition to join him in a unity government. But should that fail and the opposition force new elections, “we’re naturally optimistic” of victory.
Barak earlier said he viewed as a positive signal this week’s decision of the Palestinian Central Council to postpone a planned unilateral declaration of independence for at least two months, thereby giving peace talks a chance to continue. But asked by The Jewish Week whether Arafat had prepared his people for the concessions that would have to be made to reach a peace agreement, Barak replied: “Not enough.”
Both Barak and Arafat were in the city to attend the United Nations’ Millennium Summit. While here, they met individually with Clinton. But Arafat later told CNN that he would not compromise on the issue of Jerusalem, saying that to do so would be a betrayal of his people.
At the heart of the stalemate is the Temple Mount, built over the site of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Barak received a round of applause when he told his audience Sunday: “No prime minister of Israel will ever sign a document that would hand over sovereignty of the Temple Mount to Palestinians.”
But Palestinian Cultural and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo warned Tuesday that if Israel did not retreat from that position, it was “playing with fire.” The Haram al-Sharifif, which the Palestinians call the Temple Mount, is also the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and is the third holiest site in Islam.
“Trying to touch or to play with the issue of al-Aqsa will lead to a religious war and replace attempts to reach peace and reconciliation with hatred and religious war which would last for generations,” Abed Rabbo told Agence France-Presse in Ramallah. “Any attempt to touch even a stone in the Aqsa mosque will provoke more than a billion Muslims all over the world.”
A number of Palestinian and Israeli academics have been consulting with their respective government’s negotiators, trying to develop a compromise satisfactory to all. They were in the U.S. last week for a conference sponsored by the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, said the idea of placing sovereignty of the Temple Mount in God’s hands appears acceptable to Israelis but that Arafat has yet to sign on.
“Arafat has not shown a willingness to accept creative ideas like this, but it is something he might consider if the issue is packaging and symbolism, and if the powers and responsibilities of the place were guaranteed to the Palestinians,” he said. “If the two of us renounced sovereignty and gave it to God, something along those lines would be subject to serious consideration.”
Riad Malki, director general of Panorama, the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, said that even if the initial proposal is unacceptable, negotiators should “stay with it and use it as a framework” with which to develop other ideas.
Ruth Lapidoth, a professor of international law at Hebrew University, said she has suggested that “modified notions of sovereignty” be considered, such as shared sovereignty, or even “agree not to agree.”
Menachem Klein, a senior political science lecturer at Bar Ilan University and advisor to Acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, said that although a week ago the idea of divine sovereignty appeared workable — and even got the blessing of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — Arafat may have now backed away from it.
He said also that Israel now appeared to be “seeking some authority that would express its attachments and rights to the Temple Mount. Israel does not want to harm Muslim religious rights.” The idea is for the Palestinians to have sovereignty over the mosque and Dome of the Rock, while Israel retains sovereignty under ground, “which would include the foundation on which the Holy of Holies stood. The Palestinians rejected it because for them sovereignty is” all or nothing.
“They were frightened by the idea that Israelis would dig under the Temple Mount and harm Islamic shrines,” Klein explained.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that Israel has not ruled out agreeing to Arafat’s proposal to place sovereignty of the Temple Mount in the hands of the UN Security Council and the Jerusalem Committee of the Islamic Organization Conference. Arafat would then have jurisdiction over the Temple Mount and be custodian of the Islamic holy places, while Israel would retain sovereignty over the Western Wall.