INEVITABLE When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine liberation organization Chairman Yasser Arafat met on the Israeli-Gaza border this week, the two men seemed determined to squeeze the genie of Jerusalem back into its bottle.
The Rabin-Arafat meeting came after a weekend of diplomatic turbulence triggered by Turkish Prime minister Tansu Ciller’s visit Saturday to Orient House, the seat of Palestinian political activities in eastern Jerusalem.
Rabin and Arafat pointedly avoided the issue of the holy city, focusing instead on upcoming negotiations for the extension of the Palestinians self-rule accord to the entire West Bank.
In the original 1993 self-rule accord, the question of Jerusalem was deferred to the permanent-status talks, due to begin in 1996.
But the issue of Jerusalem periodically forces itself to the forefront of the peace agenda – as it did this weekend – in variably raising temperatures and tensions.
Despite Rabin and Arafat’s attempt to ease the current round of tension by ignoring it, political observers on both sides suggest that the issue is not likely to fade away until the time for the permanent-status talks arrive.
As if to underscore this ominous prognosis, Faisal Husseini, the PLO’s leading official in eastern Jerusalem, warned Israelis this week that if the Israeli government moved to close down Orient House, the entire peace process would grind to a halt.
Husseini’s warning, which appeared in a newspaper interview, came in the wake of the Knesset’s move Monday to enact legislation that would give the police the legal powers to close Orient house, or at least to prevent it from serving as the Palestinian Authority’s quasi-foreign ministry, which is, in effect, its role today.
Orient house, one of the grand old buildings of eastern Jerusalem, is owned by the Husseini family. It took on its current political role in 1992 when, in the wake of the Madrid Peace conference, the Palestinians designated it the headquarters of their negotiating team.
The move was clearly an implied challenge to Israel’s claim of sole sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. But only Ariel Sharon among the ministers of the then- Likud government maintained that this challenge was unacceptable and that the government must close the building.
The Palestinian position regarding Jerusalem became wholly untenable, from Israel’s perspective, following the signing of the Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self rule in Washington in September 1993.
From that time, Israel formally recognized the PLO as the political representative of the Palestinian people. But by the same token, the accord limited that recognition and that representation to the confines of the Palestinian autonomous areas.
Under the terms of the accord, autonomy would come first to Jericho and Gaza, then to the whole West Bank, but not to Jerusalem, which, according to Israel, is to remain solely Israel’s sovereign territory, with special arrangements to be made for the Islamic holy places.
The Declaration of Principles specifically prevented the Palestinian self- government from conducting foreign policy and defense policy. For that reason, the PLO has retained its foreign ministry, under the leadership of Farouk Kaddoumi, in Tunis.
Yet Husseini, who is a minister without portfolio in the Palestinian Authority, continues to insist, along with other Palestinian dignitaries, on hosting foreign diplomats and visiting officials at Orient House, thereby deliberately and demonstratively underscoring the Palestinians’ claim to sovereign rights in Jerusalem.
For the Palestinians, Ciller’s visit was their greatest coup so for: She was the first serving prime minister to have visited Orient House.
For Rabin, it was the last straw.
No sooner had the Turkish leader left Israeli soil than Rabin ordered his party leaders in the Knesset to push through the enabling legislation to allow the police to close Orient House.
The Likud opposition refused to back the bill, because it implies endorsement of the Declaration of Principles with the Palestinians, which Likud opposes. But Rabin was able to win the support of one key Likud figure, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
The bill passed its first vote by a comfortable margin on Monday and is expected to move through the committee stage without difficulty.
Husseini, in his interview Tuesday with the Yediot Achronot newspaper, insisted that his activities at Orient House were conducted in his capacity as a leader of the Palestinian negotiating team – not in his alter ego as a minister of the Palestinian Authority.
He maintained, therefore, that the Ciller visit had not been a new departure, and, therefore, should not have prompted Rabin’s legislative effort.
The stage is now set for a showdown, with potentially dramatic consequences for the peace process once the bill becomes law.
Will Rabin order Police Minister Moshe Shahal to have police surround the building and prevent further visits by foreign dignitaries? Will he order them to move in and shut the institution, a move that risks potential violence, with world media coverage, between Israeli police and the Palestinian security men who patrol Orient House and its environs?
The domestic political pressures pushing the prime minister toward a showdown are clear. Even the moderate Ha’aretz newspaper editorialized Monday that Rabin must prevent another “Ciller incident,” which erodes Israel’s status in Jerusalem.
But the international complications would be great. Underscoring them Sunday was a visit to Husseini at Orient House by French Health Minister Simone Veil, a Jew who is a holocaust survivor and a devoted friend of Israel.
Veil clearly knew the sensitivity of her action, but nevertheless went ahead with it.
The Israeli government, moreover, acting through the Foreign Ministry, consented to Veil’s visit in advance.
Though apparently preparing for a showdown, the Israeli government wants the timing to be of its own choosing – and the law to be firmly on its side.