News Analysis: Likud Presses Jerusalem Issue As Focus of Election Campaign

The Likud Party has drawn first blood. In its opening thrust of Israel’s nationwide election campaign, the main opposition party this week attacked the issue of Jerusalem – and it immediately had Shimon Peres’ Labor-led government bleeding and backing away.

“If they carry on like this, we might win yet,” a senior Likud figure said bemusedly in an interview.

Peres announced last week that he would seek early elections. But while all parties agreed that the polling should be moved up from its scheduled date in October, they spent several days bickering about the actual date until they agreed Tuesday on May 29.

But Likud strategists did not wait until the date was resolved.

“Peres will split Jerusalem,” they proclaimed over the weekend on thousands of billboards and in full-page newspaper ads.

Likud leader benjamin Netanyahu and his top aides held a news conference in the capital Sunday morning to drive home the assault, accusing Labor of holding secret negotiations with the Palestinians – negotiations, according to Likud, that would result in the division of Jerusalem.

The attack might have been a one-day wonder – were it not for the Peres government’s fluttering reaction.

The leaders of Labor “have gone completely hysterical,” the leader of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, Aryeh Deri, observed on television Monday night.

Peres himself set the tone by dispatching the Cabinet secretary, Shmuel Hollander, to solemnly assure reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting that the prime minister was not going to split Jerusalem and, more specifically, that the government was not holding secret negotiations with the Palestinians about the future of the city.

This quickly backfired, however, when the Israeli daily Ha’aretz confirmed in its main headline Monday that two Israeli academics involved in the early negotiations with the Palestinians held in 1993 in Oslo, had indeed held several sessions recently with Palestinian figures on the future of Jerusalem.

One of the two professors, Ron Pundak, was quoted as saying that the meetings were “purely academic.”

Unlike the situation in early 1993, Pundak contended, there was currently no need for unofficial diplomacy because Peres and Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat talk directly.

Compounding the impression of a governing party on the run – instead of, as the polls portray, a party with a commanding electoral lead – Labor slashed wildly at Likud for engaging in “negative propaganda” and “personal attacks.”

Some ministers, at the Cabinet session, grimly recalled “the atmosphere before Yitzhak Rabin’s murder” last November, when Likud engaged in hot political rhetoric that many later blamed for contributing to a climate that made the assassination possible.

But this charge fell flat when Minister of Tourism Uzi Baram commented that the Likud’s tactic was in his view entirely within the bounds of political propriety.

Perhaps Labor’s most glaringly oversensitive response – radiating vulnerability – was an announcement from Minister of Internal Security Moshe Shahal’s office that he would use police force if necessary to prevent high-profile Palestinian diplomatic activity at Orient House.

In formal letters to the prime minister and to the foreign minister, Shahal solemnly made this pledge – to which no one, Israeli or Palestinian, attaches the slightest credence.

Orient House, a 19th-century building in eastern Jerusalem, serves as the center of Palestinian political and social activity in the city.

It is the headquarters of Faisal Husseini, the most prominent Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, who serves as minister for Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian Authority.

Ostensibly, Orient House’s activities are unconnected with those of the Palestinian Authority, but rather concern the lives and welfare of the local community – the 170,000 Palestinians who live in eastern Jerusalem.

It is on that tenuously formalistic basis that – to the frequent but impotent chagrin of the Israeli government – Husseini and other leading Palestinians receive visiting foreign dignitaries at Orient House.

Israel sees such activity as necessarily eroding its own claim to sole sovereignty over the city, but in the past it has been able to do little more than issue sharply worded statements about such meetings.

Indeed, on Tuesday, Peres contradicted Shahal’s announcement by saying that Israel could not prevent foreign ministers from visiting Orient House.

As part of his party’s attack on the government, Jerusalem’s Likud mayor, Ehud Olmert, demanded Sunday that this transparent fiction be ended.

Olmert neglected to mention that the fiction began during the days of Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government, in which he served as a minister.

But Shahal and Labor were apparently too rattled to raise that point.

Instead, the minister for internal security blithely swam straight into the net that the Likud had cast for him, giving a commitment that international pressure will certainly prevent him from honoring – as it has prevented governments, both Labor and Likud, in the past.

Having struck pay dirt so soon, the Likud can now be expected to keep digging away at the Jerusalem issue throughout the campaign.

A highly placed Likud strategist said in an interview that his party’s plan of attack lay in targeting “the Peres credibility factor.”

Once again, as in the series of election campaigns in the 1980s that Peres lost, the Likud intends to reawaken in the public a feeling that a Peres cannot be trusted, that what he says is not what he means – or what he intends to do.

“I give Peres all the credence he gives himself,” Netanyahu said sarcastically Monday. “He denied that he was negotiating with the PLO when he was doing so – and now he denied he’s negotiating over Jerusalem.”

However, there were those in Labor this week who sought some consolation in the thought that perhaps the opposition had made its best move too early.

Labor strategists still maintain that Peres’ “credibility problem” is a thing of the past.

They believe that the prime minister, who now has a worldwide reputation for statesmanship and courage, has proved himself both credible and consistent, clinging to his peace policy in recent years in the face, of widespread skepticism and even ridicule.

Why, then, the panic in the Labor camp?

Seasoned political observers point to the no-win quality of the jerusalem issue from the Labor perspective.

Polls show a national consensus, certainly among Israel’s Jewish citizens, in favor of keeping Jerusalem undivided and under Israel’s sole sovereignty as its capital city.

Nevertheless, some 65 percent of those questioned believe that a Labor government would seek and reach some sort of accommodation with the Palestinians on the city, which the Palestinians insist is their capital, too.

Given that Labor is still ahead in the polls, there is an obvious contradiction here.

Many people are opposed in theory to concessions on Jerusalem. But in practice, they regard them as inevitable, even somehow desirable.

It is this illogical situation through which the Likud drove a coach and horses this week with dramatic success.

Buoyed by the experience, the opposition party will doubtless return to this theme, perhaps forcing voters, as the campaign proceeds, to grapple with this painful contradiction.

NEXT STORY