3 October 2000
The Palestinian Provocation
Every Israeli ambassador to the United Nations since the days of Abba Eban has been under clear instructions to keep the U.N. away from the issue of Jerusalem. So it surprises many that Israeli and American diplomats have been considering placing the Temple Mount, the most sensitive religious site in Jerusalem, under the control of the U.N. Security Council.
But given this diplomatic agenda, what should have come as no surprise is the explosion of Palestinian-incited riots in Jerusalem, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat saw that the door for international involvement was open and gave a green light on Friday to the heads of the Tanzim, the militia of his Fatah faction of the PLO, to begin the hostile confrontation with Israel, starting in Jerusalem.
Rocks at the Western Wall
Despite PLO commitments in the Wye agreement and repeated requests from Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the Tanzim were never deprived of their stock of automatic weapons. Within hours of the green light, both the Tanzim and the Palestinian Authority's official security services opened fire on Israeli soldiers and put Palestinian children forward at points of confrontation. Mr. Arafat's men shot up the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, another holy site, and refused to allow Israel to evacuate the wounded.
Jews praying at the Western Wall were threatened with salvos of rocks.
To anyone familiar with the situation, it looked as if Mr. Arafat was seeking to provoke immediate U.N. intervention in order to erode Israel's diplomatic standing in the Jerusalem negotiations. And sure enough, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath called yesterday for an international force to be deployed in the city to stop "a war the Israelis have been waging on the Palestinians."
Israel has been through the experience of U.N. involvement many times before. Back in 1947, the U.N. General Assembly was reluctant to apportion Jerusalem, with an overwhelming Jewish majority, to the Jewish state. Instead Resolution 181 (legally non-binding, as are all General Assembly resolutions) recommended the internationalization of the city as a "corpus separatum" under U.N. administration.
But during Israel's 1948 War of Independence, when invading armies from Israel's Arab neighbors put Jerusalem under siege, the U.N. did nothing to defend this resolution. Only the convoys of the nascent Israeli Army broke the siege and kept Jerusalem's residents from starving. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, later declared Resolution 181 "null and void."
From 1948 to 1967, after Jerusalem's Old City came under Jordanian control, its Jewish residents were expelled, 58 synagogues were destroyed or desecrated, and Jews of all nationalities were denied access to the Western Wall. Jerusalem's Christian population declined to 11,000 from 25,000. Yet during all those years, the U.N. Security Council didn't lift a finger to remedy the situation in Jerusalem.
Only when Israel liberated the Old City in June 1967 did Jerusalem become truly accessible to people of all faiths. Kept under Muslim administration by Israel's own decision, the Temple Mount has been visited by pilgrims from countries with whom Israel does not even have diplomatic relations -- including Lebanon and Libya. Only Israel has protected freedom of religion in Jerusalem.
At Joseph's tomb and the Western Wall, Mr. Arafat demonstrated over the weekend that he has no regard for the holy sites of other faiths.
Mr. Arafat knows that opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit last Thursday to the Temple Mount, as was the case with visits of other Knesset members before him, was in accordance with the rules that have governed the area since 1967.
But he also knows that the U.N. Security Council is ultimately a political body driven by the national interests of its member states, not by pure adherence to international law or the merits of issues it considers. So he decided to have his own security chiefs incite the Temple Mount riots a full day later.
Alert American diplomacy on the Security Council will now be required to keep the U.N. out of the Jerusalem issue. But lessons need to be learned before diplomacy can be resumed.
First, Mr. Arafat's adoption of violence as an instrument in negotiation must not be rewarded. Israeli radio and television have been reporting the disappointment of the Barak government with the failure of the Clinton administration to demand that Mr. Arafat order his men to stop. If Mr. Arafat senses that he has made tangible diplomatic gains through violence, then he will inevitably adopt this course again in the future. Had Washington penalized the PLO chairman for similar outbreaks of violence in September 1996 and again last May, the current outburst probably wouldn't have happened.
Second, proposals to internationalize the Temple Mount need to be seriously reconsidered. There is little reason to believe the U.N. would handle Jerusalem more fairly than it has in the past. According to Palestinian sources, the idea of putting the Temple Mount under Security Council control was presented by President Clinton at Camp David and rejected. Mr. Arafat doesn't find this proposal particularly desirable, but it could serve as a useful instrument for trying to dislodge Israel from its current position in Jerusalem.
Finally, the Clinton administration has been contemplating whether it should put some of its ideas for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement in writing as a formal proposal. This would be a terrible mistake. The current ideas for U.N. involvement in Jerusalem would erode the terms of reference for the peace process that were painstakingly negotiated prior to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. With the U.N. as part of formal proposals for Jerusalem, Israel could well face new claims on the basis of Resolution 181, which would only increase the diplomatic gap between Israelis and Palestinians.
At some point, the responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will fall to new governments. A new administration in Washington will take office in January 2001, while a new Israeli government could well follow, given Prime Minister Barak's coalition difficulties. It would be wrong to saddle future Arab-Israeli diplomacy with unworkable bridging proposals that would make diplomacy even more unmanageable than it has proven to be over the last several months.
Mr. Gold, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999, heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.