News Analysis: Secret Letter on Jerusalem Sites Prompts Political Furor in Israel

This week’s publication of a secret letter from Israel to Norway on the status of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem sent the Rabin government into convulsions as it desperately sought to staunch the political damage triggered by the affair.

Arguing that critical information was willfully concealed from the Knesset, the right-wing opposition, led by the Likud, demanded Rabin’s resignation or, at the very least, a new vote on the entire Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement.

In the media, the episode prompted an unprecedented attack on the government’s credibility as commentators underscored the various denials and prevarications about the letter that have emanated from top ministers in recent weeks.

Now that it has been made public, the text of the letter appears less momentous than might have been imagined, according to observers.

However, it comes at a time of acute sensitivity over the Jerusalem issue, with PLO spokesmen from Yasser Arafat on down focusing international attention on the city’s status and future.

According to the autonomy agreement, which went into effect for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho last month, Jerusalem is not supposed to be raised until talks on the final status of the territories, slated to begin within two years.

The controversial letter — whose existence was confirmed for the first time last week — was sent by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to Johan Jorgen Holst, the late Norwegian foreign minister, who was instrumental in orchestrating the secret Oslo talks that led to the historic Israeli-PLO accord.

In the letter, dated Oct. 11, 1993, Peres wrote:

“I wish to confirm that the Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem and the interests and well-being of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are of great importance and will be preserved.

“Therefore,” the letter continued, “all the Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem, including the economic, social, educational and cultural, and the holy Christian and Moslem places, are performing an essential task for the Palestinian population.

“Needless to say, we will not hamper their activity. On the contrary, the fulfillment of this important mission is to be encouraged,” Peres wrote in the letter, the contents of which were clearly intended to be passed onto Arafat.

Explaining the letter in an interview Tuesday, Peres said the text had been “carefully drafted.”

The foreign minister said the letter deliberately did not mention the PLO, Arafat or the autonomous self-government, but was intended only to preserve the existing Palestinian institutions in the city.

He said the letter was sent to Holst, rather than Arafat, in an effort to underline the fact that Arafat is not a party to any discussion of Jerusalem.

Peres said the letter was sent in the wake of “a last-minute crisis that threatened the entire agreement” before the Sept. 13 signing of the Declaration of Principles in Washington.

The PLO was balking at Israel’s insistence that the declaration specify that Jericho was to be the seat of the Palestinian self-government, he said.

After much argument, the PLO accepted the Israeli condition, but at the same time Arafat demanded assurances regarding Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, according to Peres.

‘WHY DIDN’T THE LIKUD JUMP?’

As a result of that particular negotiation, Peres, nearly a month after the signing, forwarded to Holst the letter, together with passages from a speech Peres had made to the Knesset on Sept. 9.

“Why didn’t the Likud jump in the Knesset when I said virtually the same things?” Peres asked Tuesday. “They are just looking to make political capital.

“This letter in fact emphasizes our determination not to countenance any presence of the self-government administration in Jerusalem,” Peres said.

This last point is key in the controversy, because ever since the Madrid peace conference in November 1991, the West Bank leadership has been using the Orient House, a stately old building in eastern Jerusalem, as the center of its political and diplomatic activity.

Foreign envoys are received there, negotiating teams confer there, various academic and research organizations function there.

Ariel Sharon, at the time a Likud government minister, bitterly attacked his own prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over the situation with the Orient House which, Sharon asserted, had long-term political ramifications.

Now, with Likud in the opposition, with the Orient House expanding all the time, and with new organs of the Palestinian self-government in formation, the political ramifications that Sharon predicted are becoming increasingly evident.

Unofficial moves by the Israeli authorities to put a lid on Palestinian political activities in the city, and to nudge the nascent Palestinian agencies towards Jericho, triggered angry responses both from the local leadership and from Tunis.

This was the backdrop to Arafat’s notorious harangue in a mosque in South Africa last month, when he boasted that he had wrung a secret letter from Israel on the issue of Jerusalem and the holy places as his condition for signing the Gaza-Jericho agreement in Cairo May 4.

Arafat’s outburst — in which he also called for a “jihad” for the liberation of Jerusalem –led to repeated questions about the mysterious letter until public pressure forced Peres to publish the full text this week.

Peres continued to insist this week that his and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s earlier denials were “all still valid:”

There had never been a letter to Arafat; rather it was to Hoist; it was not linked to the Cairo Agreement for it had been sent nearly seven months earlier; and it did not make concessions to the PLO beyond the extant situation on the ground in Jerusalem.

On the most literal and technical level, these assertions are correct.

SENSING THE POLITICAL MILEAGE

It remains to be seen, however, whether Israeli public opinion will buy them.

The opposition — both the parliamentary parties and the settlers’ movement — seem to sense the political mileage still untapped in the affair, and are increasingly focusing their anti-government campaigns on the issue of Jerusalem.

The opposition believes that it is on the question of Jerusalem that public opinion is most united — and most determined not to make any political concessions.

Peres is trying to distinguish between political matters, on which, he says, “Jerusalem is closed,” and religious and social matters, where, he says, there is room for accommodation.

Knesset member Dan Meridor, the former Likud justice minister who, along with fellow Likud Knesset member Benny Begin, is making much of the secret letter affair, swept aside this distinction as specious.

The letter, Meridor noted during a Knesset session on the issue Tuesday, refers specifically to “Palestinian institutions” — not merely to religious or social institutions.

Amid constant interruptions from the opposition Knesset members, Peres sought to reassure his colleagues on the government position on Jerusalem. Both the government’s outlook and its actions, he said, ensure that “Jerusalem shall not be divided.

“Jerusalem will not be the capital of two states, but the capital of the government of Israel only,” he said. “It will not become a Berlin, divided by a wall,” he said, “It will not become part of the autonomy and the institutions of the autonomy will not (operate) out of Jerusalem.”

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