Monday, 24 May 1999

Arafat, Barak in accord on Jerusalem - Pact relies on concessions

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

MAY 23, 1999

JERUSALEM - Israeli prime minister-elect Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have reached an outline of an historic agreement on the future of Jerusalem, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials told USA TODAY Sunday.

If a final text can be adopted by legislatures on both sides, it would remove one of the thorniest impediments to a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Arafat has declared his intention to establish a state with Jerusalem as its capital. Barak has vowed never to re-divide the city. The compromise means that each side could claim it has achieved its aim.

Under terms of the agreement, Arafat is prepared to give up his claim to large parts of Arab East Jerusalem in exchange for control of the 150,000 Palestinians living in the city, as well as several religious sites, the officials said.

Israel's new Labor government also would not oppose Arafat's intention to declare a Palestinian state by the end of this year with its capital in Abu Dis, a village two miles east of the Old City, the officials said. The area was handed over to the Palestinians in 1996.

Abu Dis lies just outside the municipal boundary of Jerusalem as defined by Israel since it captured the eastern half of the city from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But the Palestinians can also claim that Abu Dis is within the city of Jerusalem because it falls within administrative boundaries recognized by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1917. Israel would agree not to challenge that interpretation.

But the deal is far from done. Barak still needs to form a coalition government that would present the plan to a new Israeli parliament, or Knesset. Only then, will the Knesset begin debating the plan.

Talks will begin Monday on forming a form a coalition from among the record 15 political parties who won seats in the Knesset.

The question of Jerusalem, with its holy sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, has always been the most problematic issue in any potential peace agreement. Both the Palestinians and Israelis have vowed to have Jerusalem as their capital.

Senior Palestinian officials said the outline of the agreement means that they are closer than ever to fulfilling Arafat's goal to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The new Palestinian parliament building under construction now in Abu Dis includes an office for Arafat with a view to the Old City and the al Aqsa mosque.

Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed that the two sides had agreed in principle that no land in East Jerusalem would be handed over to the Palestinians.

"Jerusalem shall remain the eternal and undivided capital of Israel," Barak said. "On this question there is no room for doubt, nor any political haggling. Jerusalem was, is, and will remain the united capital of our nation."

The White House Sunday refused comment on the report.

Under the plan, Israeli and Palestinian officials said that the Palestinian flag will be allowed to fly over several of Jerusalem's holy sites, which will effectively have the same legal status as foreign embassies.

It would also establish a safe passage corridor from Abu Dis through East Jerusalem so that Palestinians from the West Bank of the Jordan River can travel to the Old City of Jerusalem without having to pass through Israeli security checkpoints.

Palestinian and Labor party leaders worked out the agreement in secret meetings held in European capitals.

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