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The road to Jerusalem


AS WITH Israel's fragile accord with the PLO, the road to peace with Jordan eventually leads through Jerusalem.

The permanent status of the city -- holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims -- looms as the most emotional obstacle to an overall Israeli-Arab peace settlement.

The declaration signed in Washington on Monday by King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel fundamentally alters the equation. The document asserts a greater role for Jordan in deciding the city's fate and serves notice to PLO leader Yasser Arafat that a new and important Arab player publicly has joined the peace process.

Israel "respects the present special role" of Jordan over the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem and will give "high priority" to the monarch's role in negotiations for the permanent status of Jerusalem, the declaration states.

The language seems designed to weaken Mr. Arafat's claim to the city as the eventual capital of a Palestinian state and reinforce King Hussein's historic role as caretaker of the gold-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and other Muslim sites.

The old walled city is also home to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be built over the sites where Jesus Christ was crucified, entombed and ascended to heaven.

"The whole move is a blunt message to Arafat," said Joseph Alpher, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Arafat must be thinking: the Israelis maneuvered me into Gaza and now they are giving Jerusalem to King Hussein."

Israeli officials have since 1967 pledged that Jerusalem will remain the "eternal and undivided" capital of the Jewish state. But in the treaty signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization last September, they agreed to begin negotiations within two years on Arab claims to at least part of the city.

Speaking in Washington Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he did not believe the role in Jerusalem accorded Jordan in the document would "cause trouble" for Israeli-PLO negotiators.

"I think it's a part of the context for the ultimate negotiation of the final status of Jerusalem," Mr. Christopher said.

Before the 1967 Middle East war, Jordan held the city's eastern half, including all of the ancient walled city, site of important holy shrines to the three religions, and an area still densely populated by Palestinians.

In virtually every public address he delivers, Mr. Arafat stridently claims that the city will serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Asserting his stake, Mr. Arafat last week said that as the leader of 2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, only he, and not the Israelis, had the authority to invite the Jordanian monarch to the holy city to pray.

But analysts report that Israeli officials discreetly have explored the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement in which the holy sites, and perhaps the entire walled city, would be administered by an interfaith commission comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives.

Israel would retain the larger municipality as its "undivided" capital and continue to provide municipal services such as water, roads and general security around the perimeter of the old city.

Before reaching a settlement on Jerusalem, and probably as a prerequisite to a visit by King Hussein to the holy city, Israel and Jordan must reach agreement on a number of issues, including national borders and water rights.

Yet where Jerusalem is concerned, the Israelis clearly consider the king a more reasonable negotiating partner than Mr. Arafat.

While efforts of Mr. Arafat to visit Jerusalem have thus far been resisted, King Hussein has received direct and indirect invitations from national and local Israeli officials to come to Jerusalem and pray at Al-Aqsa, which the king paid to have regilded last year at a cost of $7.5 million.

Charles W. Holmes is Middle East correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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