Battle for Jerusalem heats up
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Battle for Jerusalem heats up

JERUSALEM, March 14 (JTA) — A new surge forward on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track has catapulted the sensitive issue of Jerusalem’s borders to the center of a political storm within Israel.

In a sign of just how fraught with political peril the issue has become, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an embarrassing reversal Tuesday and canceled plans to give up a West Bank village on Jerusalem’s fringes to Palestinian control.

The reversal — viewed as a capitulation to hawkish forces not only in the opposition, but within Barak’s own coalition — came only hours after the Israeli media reported that he intended to transfer control of Anata and two other villages near Jerusalem.

The reports prompted Israeli hard-liners, including Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, to flock to Jewish settlements near Jerusalem to show their opposition to the plan.

The proposal to transfer the villages of Anata, Beitunia and Ubeidiya comes as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are due to resume in Washington after more than a month of deadlock and recriminations.

The villages — with Anata no longer among them, at least for the time being — are to be handed over as part of the next Israeli withdrawal from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank.

Barak and his aides decided that three other villages located even closer to the capital — Abu Dis, A-Ram and Azariya — will not yet be transferred to Palestinian control, despite Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s demands.

But the Barak government has hinted unmistakably that if the peace process with the Palestinians does indeed get back on track, those villages will also eventually be transferred.

These concessions have triggered vigorous opposition from all quarters, including rightist elements within Barak’s coalition.

Even before Barak reversed his decision, government officials pointed out that Anata, Beitunia and Ubeidiya are not contiguous with the municipal borders of Jerusalem and that transferring them could not be seen as presenting the Palestinian Authority with an opportunity to encroach on the city.

But opposition spokesmen were quick to protest that Barak’s concession flies in the face of his own repeated assurances that he would not support any encroachment on Jerusalem at all.

Those assurances were made in the face of a brewing storm over Abu Dis, A-Ram and Azariya — which are in effect suburbs of the capital.

The Palestinian Authority has long demanded that these villages, especially Abu Dis, be transferred to full Palestinian control. They are currently

under Palestinian civilian control, with Israel having overall security responsibility.

The Palestinian Authority is completing the construction of a large new building in Abu Dis that is apparently designed to serve as the seat of its future legislative assembly.

Israeli observers believe that the Palestinian Authority is also planning to have its executive offices there as well.

Under a never-formalized, and never officially confirmed, 1993 understanding between now-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Arafat’s second- in-command, Abu Mazen, Abu Dis was to serve as the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.

By investing this suburb, located less than half a mile from the Old City walls, with the status of an administrative and legislative center, the Palestinians were given the chance to satisfy, at least in the medium term, their ambition to have Jerusalem as the capital of their planned state.

Beilin said over the weekend that he “would be happy” if the Palestinians agree to make Abu Dis their capital.

The Beilin-Abu Mazen plan has always been anathema to nationalist and rightist forces in Israeli politics.

The Barak government has never openly endorsed the plan — and indeed Barak has stolidly refused to transfer the suburbs of Abu Dis, A-Ram and Azariya to full Palestinian control.

But a statement last week by the premier’s top political aide, Danny Yatom, that the government would consider the suburbs’ transfer in the context of negotiations for a final peace deal, has thrown the political community into turmoil.

Those negotiations, which appeared to be receding at the height of Israeli-Palestinian tensions in February, now look to be closer than ever.

The two sides, under U.S. diplomatic prodding, have agreed to a new, intensified negotiating schedule that calls for a framework for a final peace treaty by May, the last phase of Israeli withdrawal by June and the final treaty itself by September.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a leading Likud Party member, warned this week that to cede the three suburbs would be “to invite Palestinian takeover of Jerusalem itself.”

It would be the source of “endless conflict” in the future, the mayor added.

One Likud legislator who voiced support for the Abu Dis idea, Michael Eitan, was roundly criticized by party colleagues for breaking ranks and expressing a line diametrically opposed to that of the party and of the nationalist camp as a whole.

Further to the right, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, blasted the government for its intention to cede the villages of Anata, Beitunia and Ubeidiya, saying this would “place a noose” around the neck of the capital.

The lines are drawn for a battle over Jerusalem that could come quicker than anyone had anticipated or wanted.

It is a battle that could prove the undoing of Barak’s government.

The National Religious Party, already threatening to quit the government over its plan to cede the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria, would presumably have further cause to secede if Barak goes ahead with the Abu Dis plan.

The position of another coalition member, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — which has been squabbling with other coalition members over domestic issues — is also uncertain.

Barak and his aides, aware of future dangers that could quickly become present disasters if the Palestinian track indeed speeds up, are putting out feelers to a number of fence-sitters in the Knesset with a view to broadening the coalition.

One such object of their overtures is the United Torah Judaism bloc, the Ashkenazi, fervently Orthodox group that was originally part of the Barak coalition but soon dropped out.

This party, while hard-line where religious issues are concerned, is believed to be pragmatic on the peace process.