JERUSALEM (Feb. 17)
The biggest crisis now facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes not from the Arab world, but from members of his own governing coalition.
Returning to Israel on Monday, Netanyahu landed in the heart of a political firestorm sparked by reports that he had pledged to freeze construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.
The controversy overshadowed this week’s resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks aimed at resolving outstanding issues of the 1995 Interim Agreement.
Before leaving the United States, Netanyahu denied reports that he had promised President Clinton to delay construction of the Har Homa neighborhood in order to avoid tensions with the Palestinians.
On Monday, the premier vowed to strengthen Israel’s hold over all Jerusalem, adding that he would convene in the coming days the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem, which has final say on all construction projects in the capital.
Netanyahu said the committee, which he chairs, “will take all the necessary decisions.” He added that those decisions will “better reflect our absolute commitment to Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem in all parts of the city.”
But the initial reports about a vow to Clinton had already set off a string of political reaction and demands that Israel strengthen its hold over Jerusalem to counter continued activity by the Palestinian Authority in eastern portions of the city.
Last week, a group of Knesset members threatened to leave the governing coalition if Netanyahu did not approve construction in eastern Jerusalem.
“Constructing the neighborhood is the watershed of my support for the government,” Jerusalem Mayor and Likud Knesset member Ehud Olmert said this week.
The Har Homa project, first formulated in 1991, calls for the construction of 6,500 housing units on a plot of about 460 acres, two-thirds of which was expropriated from Jewish owners. One-third was expropriated from from Palestinians.
The project, which had the backing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has now brought opposition members into the fray.
Labor Knesset member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a strong supporter of the project when serving as housing minister in the previous Labor government, sharply criticized Netanyahu this week, saying that “on Jerusalem there is no compromise.”
Labor legislators noted that the Har Homa plan originally had been postponed after Netanyahu, then opposition leader, spearheaded an effort to team up with Arab Knesset members to vote against land expropriations in an effort to embarrass and possibly bring down the Rabin government.
Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat has repeatedly warned that any Jewish construction projects in eastern Jerusalem would present a serious obstacle to peace.
Meanwhile, a group of wealthy Jews in Israel and abroad have purchased a plot of land near Har Homa and plan to develop the area if Netanyahu does not approve the Har Homa project, Israel Radio reported.
In a related development, Jewish settlers in Hebron held a heated meeting Sunday with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who refused to grant them permission to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank town.
“We are furious because we did not receive one building permit,” settler spokesman Noam Arnon said after the meeting.
The debate over construction projects came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met this week in an effort to implement portions of the Interim Agreement.
Foreign Minister David Levy led the Israeli delegation; Arafat second-in- command Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu-Mazen, led the Palestinian side.
Negotiators agreed to establish nine subcommittees to discuss issues including the creation of a safe-passage route for Palestinians crossing between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the operation of a Palestinian airport and seaport in Gaza.
On Monday, representatives of the two sides met in Jerusalem to discuss procedures to be established at international crossing points into self-rule areas.
Abu-Mazen said other subcommittees would begin their work in the coming days, adding that he hoped to see tangible results from the talks in two to three weeks.
Levy expressed optimism with the first round of contacts, saying that the discussions were conducted in a positive atmosphere.
During a meeting last week, Netanyahu and Arafat had approved the start of the latest round of negotiations.