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NEWS ANALYSIS Political conflict over Jerusalem again has Orient House at center

JERUSALEM, April 25 (JTA) — A stately 100-year-old mansion in eastern Jerusalem has repeatedly been the focal point of Israeli-Palestinian tensions over the city both sides claim as their capital. Now, with Israeli elections only a few weeks off, and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat still mulling whether to declare statehood when the interim period of peacemaking ends next week, Orient House has once again become the object of a tug of war. Last week, Israel called for the closure of offices at Orient House, which serves as the Palestinian Authority’s de facto headquarters in Jerusalem. The closure order against Orient House was issued by the Security Cabinet after the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, hosted some 30 diplomats there on April 21 — Israel’s Independence Day. Although the order may take some time to implement through the proper legal channels, which will give Palestinian officials the opportunity to appeal the move, the Security Cabinet’s decision was the latest sortie in the political battle for Jerusalem. Defending the order, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Husseini’s decision to host the meeting as an example of “unusual chutzpah.” Not only had the meeting taken place on the day marking Israel’s 51st birthday, the premier said, but Husseini had greeted the diplomats by saying: “Welcome to the capital of the Palestinian people, Jerusalem.” “The people of Israel are not willing to tolerate this,” said Netanyahu, “and I am not willing to tolerate this.” Critics of Netanyahu — Israelis and Palestinians alike — linked the closure order to the election campaign. For his part, Husseini, who serves as the Palestinian official responsible for Jerusalem affairs, said there was nothing new about the meeting with the diplomats; indeed, that he had held “thousands” of similar meetings in the past, with no Israeli intervention. Netanyahu has in the past explained the lack of Israeli action against Orient House by downplaying the importance of those meetings, Husseini said. Husseini acknowledged that he referred to Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state — “just as you refer to it as the capital of Israel.” He also accused the Israeli government of trying to sow unrest between Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish residents, adding that the Israeli government is attempting to return to the “days before” the Oslo accords, which call for the two sides to discuss Jerusalem — probably the most difficult issue facing them — as part of the final-status negotiations. Warning that if Israel were to close Orient House, “the possibility of making peace would disappear,” Husseini cautioned, “Don’t push us.” The closure order was also criticized at home. Political observers noted that the order reflected the Likud Party’s election strategy of showcasing Netanyahu as the custodian of Israel’s “eternal capital.” Often a critic of the premier’s policies in the peace process, President Ezer Weizman said he did not believe that the “sensitive issue of Jerusalem should be blown up over Orient House. “Maybe it’s necessary to calm down a bit,” he added. Two of Netanyahu’s rivals in the race for prime minister also criticized the move. Yitzhak Mordechai, the Center Party candidate, urged the premier to remove the Jerusalem issue from the election campaign. Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, the leader of a right-wing bloc in the race for prime minister, described the measure as “artificial, too little, and too late.” The Palestinian press, by Arafat’s order, played down the significance of the closure order, hoping that the legal process surrounding it would drag on long past Israel’s elections. Orient House has functioned as the center of Palestinian activities in Jerusalem since the late 1980s, long before the launch of the Oslo process in 1993. Husseini, whose family owned the building that once served as a hotel, established his offices there as the head of an “Arab studies society,” and later as head of the Palestinian negotiating team for the Madrid peace talks in 1991. The closure order was the latest in a series of measures and countermeasures taken by both sides to establish facts on the ground in Jerusalem before the start of the final-status negotiations. Israel, for example, has approved the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, supported Jewish purchases of Arab properties in the eastern portion of the city and has pursued a policy of confiscating the Israeli identity cards and revoking the residency rights of former Arab residents after they spend lengthy periods abroad. Earlier this month, Israel expelled a Palestinian minister, Ziad Abu Ziad, from Jerusalem, charging that he had engaged in political activities there on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. And last month, Israel issued a directive to close three offices linked to the Palestinian Authority: a Palestinian prisoners club, the WAFA Palestinian news agency and a Christian affairs office. As part of efforts to increase the Jewish presence in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem, a group known as the Zion Settlers recently took over 10 buildings in the Sheik Jarah neighborhood, located near Orient House, from which Palestinian residents were evicted by court orders. Last week, an 11th building was taken over, and three Jewish families are planning to move into an additional three buildings. Legislator Binyamin Alon, a member of the far-right Moledet Party who is one of the group’s leaders, said of the campaign, “We are determined to create a Jewish territorial continuum” throughout Jerusalem. As part of their ongoing Jerusalem campaign, the Palestinians have encouraged the return of former Arab residents to the city and repeatedly attempt to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s presence in Jerusalem. Moreover, Palestinian plainclothes police are known to operate in the city, the Palestinian Education Ministry controls the curricula of eastern Jerusalem schools — with the silent consent of the Israelis — and they have established a variety of organizations in the city, including offices devoted to health, sports, statistics and vocational training. All Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s, have accepted the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. Every now and then, Israeli leaders have flexed their political muscles, issuing one closure order or another. But they have generally managed to live with a clear reality: The Palestinian Authority operates in Jerusalem to a much greater degree than any of them would openly admit.