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News Analysis: Plan to Expand Jerusalem Spurs International Criticism

Israel’s decision to expand its capital city has prompted a new international dispute over the status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority, as well as the United States and Israel’s closest allies in the Arab world, criticized the move as a provocative act that could deal another blow to the long-stalled peace process.

But a primary motivation for the move — to boost Jerusalem’s economy — has nothing to do with the peace process, say Israeli officials, who sought this week to make a distinction between economic and political issues regarding Jerusalem.

“I’m afraid to say there has been a deliberate campaign to try to distort our decision,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference Sunday. The Cabinet’s decision “has no political implications whatsoever either in Jerusalem or outside of Jerusalem.”

The premier’s remarks followed the Cabinet’s decision Sunday to create an umbrella municipality for the greater Jerusalem area, which would include such communities as Givat Ze’ev and Ma’aleh Adumim, which are in the West Bank.

The proposal, drawn up by a government committee in a bid to strengthen the economic development of the capital, also includes annexation of land and suburban communities west of the capital within Israel proper. This fact has sparked sharp opposition from Jewish residents of those areas.

According to the Cabinet decision, eight main points were addressed in the plan:

Widening the city’s jurisdiction, to annex outlying communities west of the capital. Following sharp protests from residents of Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, the community was excluded from the plan.

Creation of an umbrella, or “super-municipality,” that would provide services for additional communities, including some located in the West Bank, in such areas as planning and building.

Encouraging development of a high-tech area to create jobs.

Offering housing benefits to reduce the current gap in prices between housing in Jerusalem and lower-cost areas outside the city.

Improving train service between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Integrating a mass transit system of light rail and buses.

Development of a major road system surrounding the city.

Speeding up implementation of neighborhood renewal projects.

Netanyahu, who was joined at his news conference by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, said the purpose of the plan was to streamline services already provided to outlying communities and to give Jerusalem greater control over areas west of the capital.

They said the plan’s inducements for housing, jobs and transportation would benefit both Jewish and Arab residents of the city.

The Israeli government’s efforts to separate political from economic concerns surrounding Jerusalem did not mute criticism of the plan.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said unilateral moves linked to the final status of the city were not productive.

In a conference call last Friday, Albright asked the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Melvin Salberg, who was in Israel, to press Netanyahu to cancel the plan.

Albright, who initiated the call on four hours notice, told a dozen U.S. Jewish leaders that in an earlier call Netanyahu had denied that such a plan existed. According to a participant on the call, Albright said that Netanyahu blamed the reports on “Palestinian propaganda” and promised to clarify his government’s position at a news conference Sunday.

The news conference, however, did little to mollify American or Palestinian concerns.

Despite the Israeli clarifications, Palestinian officials denounced the move as a de facto annexation of areas in the West Bank and an attempt to alter the status of Jerusalem and the city’s demographic balance between Jews and Arabs, in violation of the signed accords.

Netanyahu rejected the criticism, saying that the plan deliberately did not do anything to alter the political status of the city, which is slated to be resolved in final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Speaking at Sunday’s news conference, Netanyahu suggested that there was a deliberate effort to distort the plan’s details and turn it into a “political hot potato.”

Netanyahu denied that the plan represented any violation of Israeli-Palestinian accords, adding that he regretted that the Americans did not contact him before condemning the proposal.

The premier said he had discussed the details of the proposal with Albright and had sent clarifications to Israeli embassies in Europe.

The Israeli move comes as the United States is trying to achieve a breakthrough that would revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. At the same time, Washington has been seeking to dissuade Western European countries from backing an Arab effort to upgrade the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the United Nations.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat termed the Israeli Cabinet’s decision a “declaration of war.”

Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab adviser to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, said it was a “slap in the face” of American efforts to end a 16-month- long deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, also denounced the plan.

Israeli opposition members also denounced the proposal.

The Labor party accused Netanyahu of mistakenly bringing Jerusalem to the center of political debate. Labor Knesset member Hagai Merom suggested that the decision was an attempt by the premier to placate far-right members of his coalition, who have been clamoring for action on such building projects as Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem.

Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in March 1997, shortly after work began on a new Jewish community at Har Homa, which is located in an area that Palestinians hope will be part of their independent state.

Merom also said Netanyahu might be trying to convince right-wing members of his coalition to agree to a further redeployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank. The United States has been pressing Israel to carry out a redeployment of some 13 percent, but Netanyahu has balked at making a decision on the size of a redeployment and the National Religious Party has threatened to bring down his government if he agrees to a redeployment.

“It seems that the prime minister started to deal with the Jerusalem question in order to gain the favor of the National Religious Party and all the other right-wing representatives,” said Merom, “to show that he is not giving up territories, but the opposite, he is annexing territories to the city of Jerusalem.”

But Merom cautioned that a provocation such as expanding Jerusalem would block the achievement of a further redeployment.

The head of the National Religious Party faction in the Knesset, Shmaryahu Ben- Zur, welcomed the decision to strengthen Jerusalem as a “first step,” and called on the government to immediately begin building on Har Homa and expanding eastward.

Meanwhile, leaders of Jerusalem suburbs that would be brought under Jerusalem’s authority condemned the decision, saying that it would undermine the lifestyle and independence the residents living there had sought.

Hundreds of residents of affected communities protested in Jerusalem Sunday, saying that the plan to annex their suburbs would raise their taxes.

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