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Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise over order to close Orient House

JERUSALEM, May 10 (JTA) — The Palestinians’ de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem has become the focal point of tensions that could lead to violence only days before Israel holds its elections. Israeli and Palestinian officials made a final bid Monday to reach a compromise regarding three offices at Orient House that Israel charges are operating on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in violation of the Oslo accords. The meeting came after Israel’s Inner Security Cabinet voted to enforce a closure order on the three offices. With officials on both sides warning that closing the offices could prompt violent Palestinian protests, some observers are maintaining that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is purposely seeking a confrontation to bolster his support in next week’s elections. After the closure order was first issued last week, demonstrators for and against the move have gathered daily outside the compound. After Monday’s Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Israel had given negotiators ample time to try to resolve the dispute before the ministers reached their decision. “If the Palestinians will not complete the closure on their own, we will carry out these orders,” Netanyahu told reporters Monday. U.S. officials, concerned about the potential for violence, have been trying since last week to defuse the situation. The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem has met with both sides in an effort to negotiate a compromise, and on Monday the U.S. State Department called on the two sides to work together to resolve the dispute. “What’s important to us is that both sides seek to resolve this issue peacefully and avoid a larger problem,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin, who refused to weigh in on the substance of the dispute. Even if Israeli police serve the closure order, the Palestinians will still have the right to appeal to Israel’s High Court of Justice. Palestinian officials, knowing that violent protests may help Netanyahu’s election prospects, have been eager to defuse the situation. On Monday they presented a compromise that sources in Israel’s Public Security Ministry described as showing “flexibility” on their part, Israel Radio reported. Palestinian official Faisal Husseini, whose office at Orient House is one of the three that Israel wants closed, was quoted as saying that in light of the ongoing contacts he was surprised by the Israeli Cabinet decision. He and other Palestinian officials have dismissed the Israeli charges that the offices are carrying out illegal activities and have accused Netanyahu of trying to force a confrontation to advance his own political interests at a time when polls are showing him trailing Labor Party leader Ehud Barak in the race for prime minister. A Netanyahu adviser, lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat earlier Monday in the West Bank town of Ramallah to discuss the confrontation. The Prime Minister’s Office said the purpose of the meeting was to underscore the gravity with which Israel viewed the situation.