The "Jerusalem Committee" of the Organization of Islamic States convened in Morocco on August 28-9, 2000 to discuss the status of Jerusalem against the backdrop of the PLO-Israel negotiations of the Final Status Agreement. The concluding statement published by the committee is a significant modification of the traditional position of Arab and Islamic states and forums on the issue of Jerusalem. Article C of the statements reads:
"The Committee emphasizes its support for the position of the State of Palestine based on Palestinian sovereignty over Al-Quds Al-Sharif ["Holy Jerusalem"], including Al-Haram Al-Sharif [Temple Mount or its mosques] and all the Christian and Islamic holy places that are a part of the Palestinian lands that have been occupied since June 1967. [The Committee] emphasizes that Al-Quds Al-Sharif is the capital of the independent Palestinian state. In this regard, the committee emphasizes its rejection of any attempt to reduce Palestinian sovereignty over Al-Quds Al-Sharif."[1a]
This statement is a deviation from the rhetoric typical of such Arab and Islamic forums because it does not include an explicit demand for: "a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borderline." Its absence is even more apparent in view of the fact that with regard to the Golan the statement read:
"The Committee supports the efforts that are made for establishing a just and comprehensive peace and for the return of the occupied Syrian Golan in its entirety, up to the June 4 borderline, and it welcomes the victory of Lebanon and the liberation of [its] South in its entirety."
So far, forums like the "Jerusalem Committee," the Arab League, or the Islamic Congress have always referred to "the Arab and Islamic occupied lands" en bloc and demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borderline on all fronts. For example, the concluding statement of the July 1998 convention of the "Jerusalem Committee" itself called for "an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Palestinian and Arab lands, including Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan, to the June 4, 1967 borderline and [a withdrawal from] the occupied Lebanese lands, immediately and unconditionally."
In the concluding statement of the current "Jerusalem Committee" meeting, there is a striking difference between the demand for a withdrawal from the Golan "in its entirety" and the demand for Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. The Golan issue is defined in terms of territory, the "June 4, 1967 borderline." This is further emphasized by mentioning "the liberation of South [Lebanon] in its entirety." On the other hand, the demand for Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem is defined in religious, rather than territorial terms: "Al-Quds Al-Sharif, including Al-Haram Al-Sharif and all the Christian and Islamic holy places." Indeed, the Committee's conclusion stated that these holy place are "a part of the Palestinian lands that have been occupied since June 1967," but it is not specified, as has been the case previously, that Israel should withdraw from all those lands, including Jerusalem in its entirety. While on the issue of the Golan the Committee completely ignores Israeli demands, the terminology regarding Jerusalem indirectly recognizes the existence of Israeli counter claims in Jerusalem.
The last sentence in Article C states that "the Committee rejects any attempt to reduce Palestinian sovereignty over Al-Quds Al-Sharif." This sentence reflects a compromise between the representatives who drafted the statement. According to Al-Hayat, this sentence was in dispute between the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq Al-Shar', on the one hand, and the Egyptian representative, Minister of Higher Education, attorney Mufid Shihab, and possibly Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, on the other.[1b] This compromise allowed the Syrians and Iranians to claim that it is well known that Al-Quds Al-Sharif is defined by the June 4, 1967 line, while more moderate elements could claim that the terminology was general and did not necessarily reflect the June 4, 1967 border.
Dispute over Jerusalem's Holy Sites
Another issue in dispute, according to Al-Hayat's source, was the status of Jews in East Jerusalem. Arafat wanted to include a phrase that expresses "religious tolerance" and refers to "free access to the worship places of all religions since the British Mandate." According to Al-Hayat, Arafat referred to the right of prayer given by the British to the Jews in the "Al-Buraq Wall," which the Jews named the Wailing Wall. Al-Shar', it was reported, objected to the inclusion of "religious tolerance" in the statement. He claimed that: "Tolerance has been characteristic of Arabs and Muslims -- in contrast to Jews -- since the beginning of time and everybody knows that the Arabs who launched several wars against Israel, have never demolished a single synagogue on any Arab land, while Israel has been vindictive and hateful in all its wars, since the Deir Yassin [massacre] and until Qana..." Al-Shar' continued, "There should be a difference between religious tolerance, on the one hand, and sovereignty over Al-Quds Al-Sharif, on the other. Jerusalem is Arab and will remain Arab and in Arab ownership and we should only accept full unreduced sovereignty."
It is possible that Al-Shar' was worried that any reference to the Jewish holy sites in East Jerusalem could be interpreted as a recognition of Jewish rights in the sovereign sense. Therefore, he preferred to completely ignore the Jews in the statement and only mention the "Christian and Muslim" holy places. However, in this case as well, the absence of the Jews can be interpreted both ways. Those who oppose a compromise in Jerusalem may claim that the fact that the Jewish holy sites -- the Western Wall and the Temple Mount -- are also sacred to Islam explains why they were not mentioned in the statement. These sites fall under "Islamic holy places" which should be under Palestinian sovereignty. Those Arabs who support a compromise may claim that the fact that only "Christian and Islamic" holy places were mentioned, means that the Jewish holy places can be conceded to Israel.
The difference between the concluding statement and the public position of Arafat in his speech at the convention the previous night is also apparent. Arafat stated that "Al-Quds Al-Sharif, which was occupied in 1967, is the eternal capital of the independent Palestinian state and a red line that cannot be disparaged." Arafat's maximal territorial terms were adopted in the concluding statement in regard to the Golan, but were replaced by basically religious terms with regard to Jerusalem. Historically, this modification is important, since it is the first recognition by a supreme Islamic forum, such as the "Jerusalem Committee," of the possibility of an alternative to the demand for an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem in its entirety.
Practically, the "Jerusalem Committee" statement does not bridge the gap with the Israeli position, which is that the Jewish affiliation with the Temple Mount mandates that it remain under Israeli sovereignty. But the statement does allow Arafat some maneuvering space if he needs to make concessions. The statement sets three degrees of adherence to East Jerusalem sites.
- The lowest degree relates to the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the Jewish quarter in the Old City. Supporters of a compromise in Jerusalem may claim that a concession by Arafat on these areas would not contradict the Jerusalem Committee's statement.
- The second degree of adherence relates to the Western Wall, which was not mentioned by name in the statement. The position of the statement in this matter is ambiguous. On the one hand, it can be claimed that the fact that the Western Wall is not mentioned by name allows Arafat to concede it without contradicting the statement. On the other hand, it is also possible to claim that the Western Wall is included under "Islamic Holy places" that must be under Palestinian sovereignty.
- The third and maximal degree of adherence applies to Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which is mentioned by name as an obligatory part of Palestinian sovereignty. The Jerusalem Committee rejects any Israeli claim for status in the Temple Mount.
In fact, the Jerusalem Committee has mapped previously uncharted waters for possible Palestinian concessions in East Jerusalem. Under the new platform, it is possible that in return for the Israeli concessions and under American and international pressure, Arafat may concede Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. While the "Jerusalem Committee" gave Arafat no Arab or Islamic legitimation for any concessions on Temple Mount, it left the possibility for Palestinian compromises over the Western Wall ambiguous.
*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.
[1a] Al-Hayat's source is probably Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq Al-Shar' himself. The claim that Arafat opposed the inclusion of a sentence determining that the Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem should not be reduced does not reconcile with the positions he presented in the conference and is not plausible. It seems this claim reflects the Syrian mud-slinging on Arafat's negotiating policies, that was led recently by Al-Shar'.
[1b] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), August 30, 2000.
 Al-Ayyam (PA), August 29, 2000. Emphasis by MEMRI.