Stepping Stones

Israel is preparing a package of gestures designed to revive the Mideast peace negotiations that have been frozen since work began on a contentious Jewish housing project at Har Homa in East Jerusalem two months ago.

The measures are expected to include firm steps toward building homes for Arabs in Jerusalem and the restoration of residence rights in the holy city to hundreds of Palestinians who forfeited them by moving out.

A government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, said this week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was determined to prove that he was not bluffing about Arab housing. “He wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize,” Fogel said, adding that this was the best answer to Palestinian charges that Netanyahu was interested only in “Judaizing” the city, which both peoples claim as their capital.

The Israelis are also contemplating a more flexible approach on various unfulfilled commitments made by the previous Labor government under the interim agreement — so long as the Palestinians resume full-blooded cooperation in the war on terror.

Among the issues being considered are Palestinian air and sea ports in the Gaza Strip; a safe-passage road link between Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza; and access for Palestinian workers to jobs in Israel, from which they are frequently barred by security closures.

The Palestinians remain skeptical, however, about whether Netanyahu can or will deliver. The Bar-On fiasco over the dubious appointment of an underqualified lawyer to the post of attorney general has left him both weaker and more dependent on hard-liners in his right-wing and religious coalition.

He can no longer hold the threat of a national-unity government with Labor over his disaffected ministers. As former Washington correspondent Akiva Eldar put it in a wry Ha’aretz column, “The Bar-On scandal has removed only Shimon Peres from the government.”

“[Netanyahu] wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize.” —

Moshe Fogel, government spokesman

The Interior Ministry, a fiefdom of the Sephardi Shas party, is resisting the prime minister’s attempt to stop its confiscating Jerusalem identity cards from Arabs who have moved either abroad or to the West Bank suburbs. And Netanyahu himself is defying international pressure to stop building 6,500 Jewish homes on Har Homa.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat complains that the Israeli government is not interested in salvaging the peace process. Speaking to reporters on his return from talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last weekend, he accused Netanyahu of “continuing to violate signed agreements.” He recognized the “good intentions” of Ezer Weizman, with whom he was meeting on the edge of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but he also noted that the figurehead president could offer no more than a gentle warming of the atmosphere.

In the longer term, Israelis and Palestinians reluctantly acknowledge that their best hopes lie with the United States. Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s Middle East trouble-shooter, was returning to the region on Wednesday. Under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Washington seems to have resigned itself to a more active role.

It has been pressing Netanyahu to come up with confidence-building measures, and American officials are now expected to take part in all negotiating sessions. Previously, the Clinton administration preferred to let the two sides solve their own problems, reserving its intervention for the final, critical stages, as it did over the Hebron redeployment in January.

This is clearly no longer enough. David Afek, the sober head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry research department, went so far last week as to pronounce the peace process dead. It will take all of Uncle Sam’s skill and leverage to resurrect it.

In an internal briefing that was leaked to the local media within hours, Afek reported that most foreign governments blamed Israel for the stalemate. He urged ministers to take the initiative and prove them wrong. Otherwise, he said, things could only get worse.

Aides to Foreign Minister David Levy denounced Afek’s assessment as a “provocation.” But it begins to look as if someone is paying attention.

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Renewal and Restraint

Renewal and Restraint

By Edward Sanders

I went to Israel last month as someone who is a supporter of the peace process; as someone who believes in exchange of land for peace; as someone who is dedicated to peace with security for Israel; and as someone disturbed by the construction at Har Homa and the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel. Over the course of many years, I have supported Israel’s peace movement and have worked to promote a just peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

When Binyamin Netanyahu was elected by the Israeli people as their prime minister last May, I was disappointed. I did not think that he would, or could, effectively continue the peace process that was initiated by former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. I have been concerned about the proposed law of conversion, and now there is the additional problem of a politically wounded prime minister.

When I met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office last month, I related to him all of my concerns. Subsequently, after seeing the situation on the ground and being among the people of Israel, I found that my long-standing emotional commitment to Israel was reinvigorated, and I once again clearly understood the centrality of Jerusalem.

For Israel and the Jewish people, there has never been a capital other than Jerusalem over the course of the last 3,000 years. Jerusalem is mentioned 657 times in the Hebrew Bible (though not once in the Koran) and has been, and continues to be, the focus of Jewish prayer and thought. Although Jerusalem is revered by other faiths, its centrality to Judaism and to the Jewish people is unique. Even to secular Jews, Jerusalem has a mystical power that unites the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.

In contrast to all of Jerusalem’s previous rulers (the Jordanians, the British and the Turks, in this century), Israel has maintained unprecedented safeguards for religious freedom within the city. Since Israel reunited the city in 1967, hundreds of thousands of Moslems and Christians — many from countries that remain in a state of war with Israel — have come to Jerusalem to visit their holy places.

When the city was last under Arab rule, from 1948 to 1967, non-Moslem holy places and observances were, at best, restricted and, at worst, desecrated. Christian schools were forced to include Moslem teachings, and the Christian population dropped by nearly 60 percent. Jewish synagogues and cemeteries (that were not outright destroyed) were converted into latrines and chicken coops, and access was denied to the Western Wall and all other Jewish sites.

These are the memories that Israel has of the last time Jerusalem was divided. Israeli negotiators bring this painful chapter of the city’s history with them during every negotiating session with their Palestinian partners. Israel ensures the religious and cultural rights of any and all who want to visit the Holy City. However, the issue of sovereignty is not open for debate.

While Israel has made certain commitments to the Palestinians through the accords that it has signed, none of these commitments has even mentioned Jerusalem. Israel does not have, and never had, any intention of dividing or sharing its eternal capital. For this reason, the status of the city was consciously omitted from all signed agreements. Any building that will take place in the Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem, or anywhere else in the city, does not violate the accords.

When I visited Jerusalem, I saw a vibrant, growing city, whose residents, both Jewish and Arab, need additional housing. Israel’s plan to build for Jews in Har Homa and for Arabs in 10 Arab neighborhoods should be taken at face value. There is no reason an international crisis needs to erupt every time a Jerusalemite requires a bigger apartment. And such construction is certainly no justification for the terrorism that occurred when a Palestinian suicide bomber murdered three young women and injured scores of others at a Tel Aviv outdoor cafe. Israel cannot be expected to negotiate under the gun.

It is absolutely clear that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli people want peace with security, and no one with whom I talked can conceive of a divided Jerusalem.

I pray that the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis comes to a just and peaceful resolution. But the division of Jerusalem is something that the overwhelming majority of Israelis will never accept. On this issue, there is unity. For peace to succeed, a creative solution will need to be implemented that satisfies Palestinian needs while the city remains under Israel’s sovereignty.

I also came home with the firm conviction, now reinforced by the political turmoil in Israel, that this is neither the time nor the occasion for the American friends of Israel to urge the Clinton administration to do any more than energetically play its historic role as an honest broker. Any other course of conduct can backfire and further harm the already fragile course of peace. This is no time to pile on.

Edward Sanders is a former president of the Jewish Federation Council for Greater Los Angeles and former senior adviser to President Carter on the Middle East.

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