President gets caught in row over Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton arrived in Jerusalem last night and immediately became ensnared in the most intractable obstacle facing Middle East peace makers - the disputed status of the Holy City.

Just as the President was landing at Israel's Ben Gurion airport his scheduled tour of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem's Old City, situated in Arab east Jerusalem, was cancelled after Palestinians said they would lock him out of the Muslim shrines.

The row erupted when it became apparent that Ehud Olmert, the right-wing Jewish Mayor of Jerusalem, was to accompany the President on to the Haram al-Sharif, or holy sanctuary, site of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest sites in Islam. Palestinian leaders in the city objected to the presence of Mr Olmert, on the ground that the Mayor refuses to recognise Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the Arab east side of the city.

In the negotiations with Israel, Palestinians are demanding east Jerusalem as their future capital, while Israel insists both Jewish west and Arab east Jerusalem remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Palestinians said last night that Mr Olmert's presence, alongside Mr Clinton, on the Haram al-Sharif would be a demonstration of US support for the Israeli position. Instead of striking Mr Olmert off his guest list, Mr Clinton chose to cancel the tour altogether. The President later addressed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and conveyed the impression he gained in Damascus that Syria was serious about making peace with Israel. 'We have been urging President Assad to speak to you in a language of peace that you can understand,' he told the MPs. 'Today he began to do so.'.

The Palestinian leadership is sensitive about the weakening support it is receiving from the US on sovereignty issues, particularly Jerusalem, since the US President was elected. Mr Clinton won 85 per cent of the US Jewish vote. Jews dominate his Middle East staff, and he has recently appointed Martyn Indyk, formerly a prominent Jewish lobbyist in the US, as ambassador in Tel Aviv.

The formal US position on Jerusalem remains founded in United Nations resolutions stating that east Jerusalem is 'occupied territory' and, therefore, has the same unresolved status as the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, which were seized from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

According to these resolutions, any unilateral moves on Israel's part to alter the status of east Jerusalem is illegal under international law. All Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem is, therefore, illegal, according to US policy.

However, there has been a distinct weakening of this position under the Democratic administration. Although Israel is still liable to be penalised by the US for building settlements in the West Bank, there is no attempt to punish Israel for building in Jerusalem, which has been pursued at an unprecedented pace since the election of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister. As a result of new settlements, Jews living in Arab east Jerusaslem now outnumber Arabs.

A special settlement-watch unit, which used to operate in the US consulate in Jerusalem, has recently been disbanded.