JERUSALEM (Jun. 27)
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert called together all eight of his deputy mayors Monday to set up what amounts to a “war room” to prevent Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat from coming to Jerusalem.
As part of his initiative, Olmert is planning to enlist the aid of world Jewry and fly in planeloads of demonstrators.
The former Likud health minister called out his troops in response to recent statements by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Arafat has the same right as any other Muslim to come to Jerusalem to pray.
Rabin’s comments — made during Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting and during media interviews last week — are certain to exacerbate the already bitter dispute in Israel regarding Arafat’s stated intention of coming to Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.
Despite the brouhaha, sources close to the government said here Sunday they did not expect that Arafat would seek to visit Jerusalem in the near future, despite Rabin’s acknowledgement of his right to do so.
Israeli officials still do not know exactly when Arafat plans to make his long-expected visit to the newly autonomous regions of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.
Each of Olmert’s deputies — all of whom belong to right-wing parties — has been given a “portfolio,” or specific area of responsibility, within the overall plan to ensure that there will be no Arafat visit.
Meir Porush of Agudat Yisrael, for example, will be in charge of raising public awareness of the campaign throughout the country; another deputy will be in charge of fund raising.
Olmert’s plan to fly in protesters from the Diaspora is part of his stated goal of bringing “a million demonstrators” onto the streets of Jerusalem if Arafat attempts to visit.
During the first session of the campaign, the mayor told his deputies that the first plane of Jews from abroad — a jumbo jet from Canada — had already been booked to capacity and is due to arrive at an unspecified date to take part in a mass demonstration.
In New York, representatives of American Jewish organizations had mixed reactions to Olmert’s effort to enlist Diaspora Jewry in his campaign.
“I don’t think American Jews should intervene that way,” said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations.
“That’s a matter of internal Israeli policy, and not something we as an American Jewish community should be involved in,” said Bayme, acknowledging that Arafat’s proposed visit poses a tough dilemma.
However, Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, had a different view.
“We’re in support” of the plan, she said, adding, “I don’t think the Arafat visit is really intended for freedom of religious worship as it is purported to be; it’s politically motivated and intended to be politically provocative.”
She said her group intends to poll its membership and see whether they would want to fly over to participate in a mass demonstration.
Herbert Zweibon, chairman of Americans for a Safe Israel said, “it cannot hurt” if American Jews join the Israeli effort.
While it is primarily the responsibility of the Israelis to take to the streets, he said, “it can’t hurt anybody to go to Jerusalem. And it certainly can’t hurt if Jews in Israel understand that there is a community out there equally concerned about Jerusalem.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while he and other leaders of the umbrella group met with Olmert recently, “nobody’s approached us about” participating in a protest.
“When it comes to Jerusalem, people’s feelings run very high, as they should,” Hoenlein said. “There are a lot of people who believe Arafat should not go to Jerusalem.
PLAN LENDS CREDENCE TO PALESTINIAN FEARS
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Ornan Yekutieli of Meretz, a leader of the opposition in the city council, criticized Olmert’s plans and said they lent credence to Palestinian fears that free access to Jerusalem holy sites might be denied.
Deputy Mayor Shmuel Meir, part of the stop-Arafat campaign, told Israel Radio he feared the police might close off Jerusalem some days before any projected Arafat visit and thus ensure a capital city that was free of all demonstrators.
“That’s why we have extended the tent city,” said Meir, referring to an encampment of West Bank settlers opposed to the Israel-Palestinian peace initiative who have recently taken over a site opposite the Prime Minister’s Office.
Meir also promised that on the day of a planned Arafat visit, Jerusalem would come to a total standstill. He added that torches of protest would be lit throughout the city and in other towns supporting the struggle.
The tent city has grown during the past week, and now boasts toilets and a water supply set up courtesy of the Jerusalem municipality in what Olmert has described as a “humanitarian gesture.”
With the start of the long summer vacation, the tent city is beginning to resemble something of a summer camp, with skull-capped youngsters dashing about to spread messages of protest.
Some of them are pasting onto cars bumper stickers with such message as “Judea and Samaria Are Right Here” and “Hebron Forever.”
(Contributing to this report was Larry Yudelson in New York.)