Jerusalem at Center of Israel Tug-of-War

Special to the Register

JERUSALEM—Across the street from the Orient House, a once-gracious Arab mansion, six Israeli soldiers lounge at a guard post.

Inside the Orient House, once referred to as the Palestinian White House, Rami Tahboub, an Arab official, gestures at the soldiers. “They are here to provoke us,” he says.

But the Border Police unit appears just as likely to protect.

As prospects for peace seem to dissipate, for right-wing Israelis (and, ironically, Palestinians as well) the Orient House has become a symbol of the battle for Jerusalem. And if the peace process breaks down, on-lookers predict, the Orient House is likely to be at the center of a tug-of-war over this fragile city, holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians.

Ostensibly the headquarters of the Palestinian steering committee for the multi-lateral peace talks, the Orient House is widely considered to be Palestinian Leader Yassir Arafat's shadow foreign ministry, his political toe-hold in the city he has vowed will be his.

To dampen such aspirations, conservative Israelis— buoyed by the Likud election victory—have called for the closure of the Orient House. It acts as an arm of the Palestinian Authority and its presence, they charge, chips But shutting down the Orient House would signal that Jerusalem is not on the negotiating table, said Tahboub, the head of its Arab World Political Desk. And the Palestinians would then withdraw from the talks, according to Palestinian leader Faisel Husseini, the senior Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official in Jerusalem.

“If someone says no negotiations on Jerusalem, I don't believe that this peace process will have any chance,” said Husseini, who predicted an uprising if the new government closes the Orient House or allows significantly more Jewish housing to be constructed in Arab parts of town. “Without Jerusalem, there would be no peace with us. It is our red line. We would compromise on anything, but not on Jerusalem,” Tahboub said.

Israel's Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu said through an aid June 5 that he would not discuss Palestinian political claims to parts of Jerusalem. So far, Netanyahu's actions and statements have been judicious and carefully-worded. But it is clear that he must either break every one of his campaign promises, which included the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, or put relations with the United States in jeopardy by provoking an abrupt and bloody end to the peace process.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported in mid-June that the prime minister, in a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, said that the “government must give a big boost to the development of Jerusalem.”

Yediot Ahronot said that an alleged project includes plans for Jewish construction in East Jerusalem with a view to cutting off Palestinian territorial ties between Bethelehem, on the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Supposedly, there are even plans to build Jewish neighborhoods in Abu Dis, a village close to Jerusalem that has been mentioned as a possible Palestinian capital.

Responding to such reports, the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, Akram Sabri, called for “resistance against the occupation.” The mufti also claimed that the Likud has promised to “strike [discussion of the status of Jerusalem] from the agenda” of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Until now, the new government has tried to avoid the problem of Jerusalem,” said Professor Ruth Lapidot, an expert on international law here who advised the Israeli government on the issue of sovereignty in negotiations with Egypt. “And that is wise,” she said. “Jerusalem has no strategic or economic importance. But, as a symbol, it is emotionally important.”

She predicted that in the three years left to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem, both sides will begin to seriously address the problem only in the final month. In the last halfhour, she says, a compromise will be reached.

Meanwhile, hard-line Likud members clamor for Netanyahu to strengthen Jewish Jerusalem.

“We now have a government that truly supports Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Shmuel Meir, deputy mayor of Jerusalem. The day the election results became final, the rabbi unveiled a plan to incorporate into a greater Jerusalem a dozen settlements ringing the capital and to place thousands of Jewish housing units in Arab neighborhoods.

The National Religious Party, whose support the Likud needs in order to gain a majority in the Knesset, has made the immediate implementation of the plan a coalition demand.

Israel Kimhi, a former Jerusalem city planner, said that Meir's plans just might be implemented. Until now, every administration has used the granting or withholding of housing permits to preserve a balance in Jerusalem of 30 percent Arabs and 70 percent Jews, he said.

“This was very important until the peace process,” Kimhi commented. “Of course, if we're going to live peacefully together, it doesn't matter whether there are more Jews or more Arabs. If we are not, it is important to strengthen Jerusalem by putting in more Jews.”

Father Robert Fortin, A.A., superior of St. Peter in Gallicantu Church near the City of David, warned that the Israeli government can't expand the settlements and get peace at the same time. “They start with one and go on to two, then 10 and 20,” said Father Fortin. “They're moving in because they want to eventually take over the neighborhood.”

Father Fortin described the general mood of the Christian community as pessimistic. The now three-month-long closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing most Palestinians and goods from entering Israel, has destroyed livelihoods and erased savings.

“No discussion on Jerusalem or on the Golan (Heights), no Palestinian state. I don't know what is left,” wondered Father Fortin. “It is coming to the point of no return, to the time where you have to go for broke. They have no alternative. If you can't get justice one way, you get it another.”

The next intifida (uprising), he predicted, will be more violent. “If they have explosives, they will use them.”

A resurgence of the intifada—with Palestinians availing themselves of the at least 20,000 weapons now at their disposal—is a grave concern of many.

“For the Palestinians, this is a big provocation,” said Ehud Sprinzak, an Israeli expert on the right wing. On the other hand, Sprinzak added, worldwide attention might prevent Netanyahu from tipping the delicate balance of the peace process.

Professor Lapidot said the Palestinians and Israelis should avoid talking about sovereignty and instead concentrate on dividing powers and responsibilities. She suggests that the city be administered along the lines of a borough system to give representation to the different communities, which comprise not only Christians and Moslems, but also ultra-Orthodox, secular and observant Jews.

The Holy Places should be administered by those who hold them as holy, Lapidot argued, with an inter-religious or international observer group ensuring free access. “We have to take into consideration,” she said, “the wishes of millions of people who do not live in Jerusalem.”

Lisa Pevtzow is based in Jerusalem.