Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of May 26, 1998
US House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt briefly aroused the ire of the Palestinian leadership last week, before backing down. Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused them of playing with fire; and said their actions could lead to many deaths - for which, he added, they would be completely responsible. The heinous offense the congressmen were planning? A visit to a piece of land owned by the US government, situated in the supposedly non-disputed territory inside Israel's pre-1967 borders - and recognized by Congress as the site of a future US embassy to Israel.
In 1995, Congress passed a bill calling for America's embassy to Israel to be moved to Jerusalem by 1999. The US already owned a site for the building, in western Jerusalem - the part slated to remain Israeli even by those who favor dividing the city as part of a peace settlement. However, the bill allowed the administration to postpone the move indefinitely if it believed it would damage America's interests. President Bill Clinton has used this loophole to delay the start of construction on the site, arguing that it would interfere with the peace talks.
To the Clinton administration, reactions such as Erekat's merely prove their point. The State Department seems never to have bothered to ask itself why the Palestinians should react so strongly - and what this reaction says about the peace process. Yet such questions cry out for answers. In the first place, why should the Palestinians care if the US builds an embassy in western Jerusalem? The Palestinians lay claim to east Jerusalem, but their official position is that they are willing to divide the city, with Israel retaining the part it owned prior to the Six Day War and the Palestinians receiving the part captured from Jordan during that war.
The fact that the Palestinians are unwilling to permit an embassy even in western Jerusalem seems to indicate that in reality, they do not recognize Israel's claim to sovereignty over any part of the city. Having embassies is one of the defining characteristics of sovereignty; hence the Palestinians oppose their presence.
Yet under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians officially recognized Israel's right to exist within the pre-1967 borders - which include western Jerusalem. If they meant it, there can be no reason for them to object to the presence of a US embassy anyplace within this territory. And if they did not mean it, what has become of the entire basis for the Oslo process?
THERE is also a second question mandated by Erekat's response - which Gingrich himself raised before bowing to Clinton's wishes - and the Palestinian threats - and canceling the visit. Why would a Palestinian threaten bloodshed over a peaceful visit, his spokeswoman demanded last week. Why must Palestinians threaten violence instead of talking matters through? Truly, an excellent question. The Oslo process was made possible by a letter from Yasser Arafat stating that the Palestinians renounced violence against the Jewish state. Its continuation has been predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians would keep this promise.This assumption was badly shaken by the wave of terror which followed the 1993 agreement, and by the Palestinian Authority's open praise of the terrorists' actions.
But the PA could produce excuses, which both the international community and the Israeli Left chose to accept: That the violence was either committed by enemies of the peace process, or was a result of uncontrollable frustration over Israeli foot-dragging in the negotiations. But what excuse can it claim for Saeb Erekat's threats of violence over this issue? In what way does a decision by the US to build an embassy in undisputed Israeli territory threaten Palestinian interests to the point where violence is justified? If the Palestinians are so ready to indulge in violence for so little motive, what does that say about their prospects of living with Israel as peaceful neighbors?
A final puzzle is why the US chooses to give in to this kind of terrorism. Surely the location of the US embassy to Israel is a matter to be settled purely between Jerusalem and Washington. Since the site is not on land that they are claiming, what right do the Palestinians have to any say in the matter at all?
The unavoidable conclusion is that the Clinton administration shares the Palestinian view that Israel has no right to sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. But if so, what has become of the administration's role as an honest broker in the process? If the US truly wishes to move the process forward, it should politely but firmly point out to the Palestinians that their actions are merely contributing to Israeli fears. Then it should go ahead and build the embassy.
For their part, the Palestinians should finally acknowledge that Israel is a sovereign state, and at the very least has the right to act accordingly in the undisputed half of its capital city. Both would do far more to advance the peace process than pressuring Israel to increase the size of the second redeployment.
(c) Jerusalem Post 1998