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A Jerusalem Settlement Everyone Can Live With

By Jimmy Carter

This Op-Ed appeared in The New York Times. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION. Copyright© The Carter Center.

For anyone who has been involved in the Middle East peace process, it is obvious how difficult are the issues of permanent territorial boundaries, the return of Palestinians to their former homeland and the status of Jerusalem. In addition, crucial questions will have to be answered involving the Golan Heights, water rights, freedom of movement, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the characteristics of a Palestinian state and the joint maintenance of security.

I have found that there are often specific negotiating points on which neither disputing side can possibly yield, and these have to be finessed. In 1978 at Camp David, Anwar el-Sadat, Menachem Begin and I addressed the status of Jerusalem in some of our early sessions, and we agreed immediately that the issue of sovereignty was too sensitive to confront. We knew that Israel had declared sovereignty over the entire city but that the international community considered East Jerusalem to be legally part of the occupied West Bank. We realized that no Israeli leader could renounce Israel's assertion, and that it would be politically suicidal for Sadat or any other Arab leader to surrender any of their people's claims regarding the Islamic and Christian holy places.

Accepting these premises, we worked out a mutually agreeable paragraph, acknowledging the city to be holy to Islam, Judaism and Christianity; guaranteeing free access to all parts of it; permitting the holy places to be under control of their own religious representatives; and approving a municipal council with balanced representation of the inhabitants to supervise all community functions and to guarantee the integrity of the various cultural and educational institutions.

Although there were never any subsequent differences about the wording, we decided at the last minute not to include the paragraph in our final declaration, for fear that it might make the already controversial text unacceptable to the Israeli Knesset.

This is still the only basic approach that can succeed concerning Jerusalem: to negotiate practical agreements on unlimited access to and control of the holy places and a joint administration of the city's more mundane affairs. It would be impossible in the foreseeable future for either Yasir Arafat or Ehud Barak to yield on any issue concerning legal sovereignty.

An important principle in negotiation is for the mediator to maintain at least the semblance of neutrality. Accolades for one side and condemnation of the other is always a political temptation after an unsuccessful effort, but this makes it very difficult to orchestrate future negotiation sessions where mutual confidence in the mediator is required. Such statements made since the recent Camp David discussions have aroused concern in the Arab community, and the possible movement of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would create an even greater impediment to further progress.

My impression is that a strong majority of both Israelis and Palestinians would welcome continuing attempts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the remaining issues. The courageous and determined efforts by President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have brought encouraging progress, at least in frankly exploring eventual solutions to the most important and contentious problems.

If hope for a peaceful resolution of these issues is to be preserved, it is crucial to remember that this is a long-term process that is likely to engage the next generation of American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders. No action should be taken by any of the parties that will make future efforts even more difficult.

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