The Israeli media are searching for scraps of information to serve a news-hungry population amid an information blackout from the Camp David summit.
Almost all newspapers, from across the political spectrum, are exploring one issue in depth: the future of Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is already divided, all that is left is the details,” read a headline in Yediot Achronot, Israel’s most popular daily.
The article, written by Roni Shaked, the newspaper’s veteran West Bank correspondent, went on to explain how predominantly Jewish western Jerusalem and mostly Arab eastern Jerusalem are already completely different entities.
According to leaks from Camp David, Jerusalem is officially on the negotiating table for the first time. Since 1967, Israeli policy has held that Jerusalem will always be united under Israeli sovereignty, and there has been traditionally strong public opinion against any compromise in the city. However, some experts said there is a subtle shift taking place in the public debate.
Jacob Shamir, a lecturer in communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said a fierce battle is raging over how the Jerusalem issue will be “framed” in the press, in the run-up to a referendum.
“The right is trying to frame the issue in black-and-white terms, that Jerusalem will either be divided or not divided,” he said.
“The other side is trying to avoid such terminology and instead is discussing the functional benefits of various proposals.”
Yet although the Israeli mainstream press is predominantly liberal, Shamir believes the Israeli right is not necessarily at a disadvantage in getting its message across.
“The needs of the media to dramatize the story does not always work in favor of the left,” he said, adding that newspapers will often focus on sensational stories that highlight conflict instead of peace.
Ma’ariv, known to be the more centrist of Israel’s main daily newspapers, said in an editorial on Sunday that the Jerusalem issue should be left open under a final agreement. It pointed out — in terms rarely stated in the Israeli debate — that “Jerusalem is a national and religious symbol for the Palestinians too,” yet stressed that the city also has an “overwhelming weight” as a “Jewish and Israeli religious and national symbol.”
Even some newspapers in the fervently Orthodox community, whose leaders tend to be more dovish than their voters, coldly dissected the options for Jerusalem.
Yom Hashishi, the haredi newspaper affiliated with the Shas Party, featured a full two-page spread discussing in detail all proposals on the table. In a sidebar, the newspaper gave its own unique spin on the dangers of proposals to annex Jewish settlements in return for Arab neighborhoods. The annexation plan, it warned, “may strengthen Jewish Jerusalem, but it would also reduce the proportion of the haredi community and its influence in the city.”
Only in the overtly right-wing press of the national religious and settlers camp did the prospect of a compromise on Jerusalem appear to be raised with the same degree of emotional intensity it has always evoked.
Hatzofeh, the national religious newspaper, warned of the “dangers threatening the unity of Jerusalem” and lashed out at reports that Barak has put Jerusalem on the table.
“The only thing left is to make clear to the prime minister in an unequivocal way that he has no mandate to discuss the future of Jerusalem,” said the newspaper. “This should be clarified to President Clinton as well.”
Supporters of this view hammered their point home in a mass rally on Sunday night, attended by an estimated 150,000 right-wing supporters, which urged Barak not to make any more concessions to the Palestinians. Banners flying in the crowds declared, “We are the majority.”
Left-wing Israelis are also stepping up a public campaign. They plan to hold a counter-rally on July 23.
Polls show that Israelis are divided down the middle on the peace issues, as is generally the case. Even though nobody knows exactly what a peace deal may look like, a Gallup poll in Ma’ariv showed that 45 percent said they will vote in favor of such a deal and 43 percent said they will vote against it.
The poll also indicates that confusion abounds. For example, only 26 percent of those polled knew that Ma’aleh Adumim, the settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, is in the West Bank.
According to leaks from Camp David, one Jerusalem proposal envisions Ma’aleh Adumim and other nearby settlements being annexed to Jerusalem in return for certain Palestinian neighborhoods being transferred to Palestinian rule.
Still, even as the sense of an imminent agreement or impending failure sparked new activism — with Israeli streets and coming alive again with protesters – – the public atmosphere is not as intense as during the Oslo negotiations and Islamic bus bombings of 1995 and 1996, when frequent and fervent right-wing rallies rocked Israel.
Several observers commented that the right-wing rally actually fell flat, as settlers tried hard to create a more moderate image and attract centrists to their cause.
“There was no fire, no powerful emotions, no rage,” wrote Michal Capra in Ma’ariv, commenting on the big rally in Tel Aviv. “With all of its attempts to be in the consensus, lean towards the referendum, sing Israeli songs and impersonate the center, the right has lost its voice.”
Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Israeli public opinion, argued that the right may face a difficult task if Barak brings home an agreement involving compromises on Jerusalem. Historically, Israelis have tended to follow their leaders on difficult decisions, even when the leaders appear to be operating outside the societal consensus.
This was the case when the government of Yitzhak Rabin decided to launch the Oslo peace process with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, and it could happen again, even though polls consistently show that Jerusalem is the toughest nut to crack.
“If there will be a decision to divide Jerusalem,” predicted Diskin, “there will be a dramatic change in public opinion.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.