- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jerusalem is a ticking time bomb where an attack by Jewish extremists on Muslim holy places could erase any chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace and undermine stability in the entire Muslim world, Jordan’s ambassador to Washington said Wednesday.

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein told reporters and editors at The Washington Times that the Obama administration does not seem to appreciate fully the precarious situation in Jerusalem and its importance for the Palestinians and other Arabs. He said that excluding East Jerusalem from any limits to Jewish settlement construction, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed, would end any chance for a peace settlement.

But it is the threat of an attack on the Muslim holy sites that “is the real showstopper [and] the issue that can turn U.S. policy on its head,” Prince Zeid said. Yet “there is no discussion about this in Washington. … Something is not working right.”

The number of incidents between Israeli security forces and Palestinian and Jewish militants has been increasing at the place that Israelis call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Dozens of people have been wounded and arrested in recent weeks.

Israel’s national police chief, David Cohen, told reporters last month that the clashes began after calls from right-wing Jewish activists and a Muslim group, the Islamic Movement, for their followers to ascend on the mount.

Prince Zeid said Jordan is worried that those events could lead to another incident such as the 1969 fire at the Al Aqsa mosque set by Australian Denis Michael Rohan. The Jordanian said the ramifications this time would be far worse given the impasse over Israeli-Palestinian talks and the rise in Islamic militancy.

“We are worried that, in the short term, something like this might happen,” he said. “It would unleash emotions of an extreme nature [and] the consequences would be very severe.”

Mr. Rohan, a Christian who considered himself “the Lord’s emissary” and said he acted upon divine instructions, was found insane, put into a mental hospital and later deported from Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s position on Jerusalem is part of a proposed moratorium on new housing units in the West Bank that would allow for building or finishing about 3,000 new units. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to endorse this during a recent trip to the Middle East, apparently abandoning the Obama administration’s initial demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity.

Mrs. Clinton said that, while Washington still wants a full freeze, Mr. Netanyahu’s plan was “unprecedented” and it was a sufficient basis for talks with the Palestinians to begin. The comment infuriated Arabs and led Mrs. Clinton to make an unscheduled stop in Egypt to try to repair the damage.

Prince Zeid said such a position cannot be understood or shared by Arabs.

“If Jerusalem is left out of the mix, if you can’t negotiate Jerusalem, there is no deal, even if you negotiate other components,” he said. “Why should [the Palestinians] want to engage? There is no purpose behind it. What possible benefit could Arab countries get from it?”

If the Palestinians lose hope for a two-state solution because they are shut out of Jerusalem, pressure will grow for Palestinians to become citizens of an enlarged Israeli state in which they would eventually become the majority.

“If you can’t have a two-state solution because of Jerusalem, can anyone think of any other way?”

Shortly after meeting with Mrs. Clinton last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not run for re-election in January. His aides attributed his decision in part to what they called the secretary’s apparent siding with Israel on the settlement issue.

Despite a full-time effort to get the two sides talking again and repeated trips to the region, the administration’s special envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, has not been successful.

Prince Zeid was also critical of Arab governments for “not marketing properly” a 2002 plan known as the Arab peace initiative, which included so-called final status issues, such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees’ right of return and borders of a future Palestinian state.

He expressed understanding for the trauma Jews in Israel feel because of the Holocaust and their sense of being surrounded in a hostile region that he said made them fear making concessions.

But he said both sides were to blame for the failure to resolve the historic dispute.

U.S. officials “must be sitting there wondering what sort of people we are,” Prince Zeid said. “They must wonder whether the Arabs [and Israelis] truly deserve anything other than the misery they have created for themselves. It’s almost like watching two children fight.”

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