JERUSALEM (JTA) – The object of 2,000 years of Jewish yearning, Jerusalem is perhaps the most sensitive topic on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table. So when it comes to discussing the future – and possible division – of the city, Diaspora Jews want their voices heard, too.
The question of how loud and expressive those voices should be was part of the discussion when top U.S. Jewish leaders visited Israel last week for the annual mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of 51 Jewish groups.
“The Jerusalem issue is different because of its centrality to Jewish life and existence,” said Malcom Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.
“The ultimate decision rests with the government of Israel, but being sensitive” to Diaspora Jews “is legitimate,” he said. “Certainly on an issue of such significance to people, we have a right to discuss and be heard.”
Tensions have been simmering over what role, if any, Diaspora Jews should play in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Jerusalem since last November’s peace summit in Annapolis, Md.
At that time, the Orthodox Union called on Olmert not to make any territorial compromises on Jerusalem. Right-leaning groups in Israel have said they would work to draft the support of Diaspora Jews against any talk of concessions concerning the city.
Israel annexed Arab east Jerusalem following its capture from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, but Palestinians claim it as their future capital. The 150,000 Arabs who live there, the emotional power and history of its Old City, and the patchwork of Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem make the issue especially difficult to resolve.
This month the issue of American Jewish advocacy reappeared when Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Diaspora Jewish opinion must be considered when it comes to negotiations over Jerusalem’s future status.
An evidently angry Olmert answered by canceling a speech he was supposed to give to the group, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported.
In his Feb. 16 speech to the Presidents Conference, Olmert tried to strike a reassuring tone, saying he would not do anything in negotiations that would compromise Israel. He also said talks on Jerusalem with the Palestinian Authority were not even on the agenda at the moment.
“I will do everything in my power to reach a peace agreement with the P.A., and in order to do that we will have to make painful compromises,” Olmert said. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that the security of the State of Israel is not compromised at all.”
“Regarding Jerusalem, this will be the last issue that is negotiated upon. It is the most sensitive issue and the most difficult, and before we start on the most difficult issue, we need to reach agreements on less important and sensitive issues.”
The Israeli media, however, have reported on secret back-channel negotiations on Jerusalem being conducted by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Among the mission-goers, the consensus was that Diaspora Jews should not have any vote on the future of Jerusalem, though many felt they should have a say.
“The role of Diaspora Jews is to learn, take interest, be supportive and understanding but not governing or controlling,” said Leonard Kleinman, the administrative vice president of the Jewish National Fund. “Diaspora Jews do not live here, do not know the immediate, personal happenings in Israel and cannot judge events.”
Joshua Katzen, a board member of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said Diaspora Jews can see the bigger picture that Israelis sometimes miss.
Thus American Jews can show Israelis that granting Palestinians any kind of sovereignty over Jerusalem would be a mistake because it would give an increasingly radicalized Islamic world a foothold in the city, he said.
“They lose sight of the wider jihad in the world,” Katzen said. “That’s what American Jews can bring to them; they have a wider view.”
The conference’s mission members took what was billed as a “strategic tour” of Jerusalem on Feb. 21, surveying its wide expanse of Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and driving along the West Bank security fence, which in Jerusalem is mostly a high concrete wall.
In a bid to counter the impression that Diaspora Jews uniformly would object to any division of the city, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he reassured Olmert in a recent meeting.
Yoffie said he told the prime minister that the Reform movement, which represents the largest Jewish religious denomination in America, would support Israel’s decisions on Jerusalem even if that meant territorial compromise, as long as it was in exchange for peace.
But Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinian Authority would be disastrous for Jews nearby, especially “after we see what happened when we gave away Gaza, endangering the Jewish areas nearby.”
Ceding areas of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority would “make parts of Jerusalem uninhabitable for Jews,” Klein said. The Palestinians “would make launching pads for more missiles and terror.”
“We recognize the government of Israel will make the final decisions,” he said, “but we need to take into account the opinion of Jews around the world.”
Also that day, the Presidents Conference heard from a panel of experts who warned that Jerusalem was in danger of losing its Jewish majority, peace deal or no peace deal.
Jews, many of them secular, are leaving the city because they say it has become too expensive, lacks job opportunities and has a culturally barren city center. Many of those leaving Jerusalem also complain the city is too poor, too Orthodox and too Arab.
The Presidents Conference mission also included a meeting with P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who told the group that the “road map issues” – referring to Israeli and Palestinian commitments under the “road map” peace process of 2003, which include Jerusalem – were guiding the work of his administration.
“My focus has been on the road map issues,” Fayyad said. “We are trying to strengthen our institutions as soon as possible. We cannot sustain the process without doing that. However, over the past few months we have made a good deal of progress.”