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News Analysis: Jerusalem Building Plan Tops Crises Confronting Netanyahu

February 19, 1997
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a stormy welcome from his own governing coalition after returning from a successful visit to the United States.

Reporters and analysts were unanimous in sensing a new warmth in relations between Netanyahu and President Clinton during the premier’s visit to Washington last week.

But this warmth sent cold shivers up the spines of Netanyahu’s hard-line critics who are openly suspect about the direction the Likud premier is heading in the peace process.

Netanyahu’s visit, the fourth to Washington since his election as prime minister in May, marked his first trip to the United States during a period of calm in U.S.-Israel relations.

Both leaders went out of their way to heap praise on each other.

“I want once again to congratulate him for the agreement that was made with Chairman [Yasser] Arafat over Hebron. It was a brave and wise thing to do,” Clinton told Netanyahu at the beginning of their Oval Office meeting.

Netanyahu, who was not scheduled to address the media prior to the meeting, jumped in to thank Clinton.

“We have seen him personally and his staff make a tremendous contribution for peace. I think their contribution for the Hebron agreement was decisive,” Netanyahu said.

“And it reflects and reaffirms the leadership for peace that President Clinton has shown throughout his term of office.”

Netanyahu was the first of a monthlong parade of Middle East leaders to visit the White House, and both he and Clinton revealed few details about their discussions on the next stage of Israeli-Palestinian talks and on efforts to restart Israeli-Syrian talks.

What was left untold is perhaps causing the most concern among conservative critics of Netanyahu.

Likud Knesset member Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, the prime minister’s most scathing political foe on the right, said Monday that his premiership had “seriously deteriorated over recent months, and most especially in the past two weeks.”

Begin, who resigned his Cabinet position last month to protest the Hebron agreement, routinely blasts the Netanyahu government for failing to stop the Palestinian Authority from maintaining offices in eastern Jerusalem.

Citing reports in the Israeli media that Netanyahu had decided to temporarily delay plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, Begin has now introduced a motion for the Knesset to discuss “the dangers of dividing Jerusalem.”

The wording deliberately echoed one of Netanyahu’s most effective, and most controversial, election slogans last year — “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”

That slogan, suggesting that former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ dovish attitude toward the Palestinians would extend to granting them future control over parts of Jerusalem, has now come full circle to haunt Netanyahu.

In recent days, right-wing groups have put up billboards on main highways proclaiming that “Bibi will divide Jerusalem.”

In fact, Begin’s fellow Likud parliamentarians struggled hard to persuade him not to title his Knesset motion, “The prime minister has divided Jerusalem.”

Anger directed at Netanyahu from his right flank also focuses on reports from Washington that Netanyahu had signaled a new willingness to compromise his stance regarding the Golan Heights.

While Netanyahu reaffirmed publicly in Washington his opposition to a complete withdrawal, he was deliberately vague on the question of accepting a territorial “compromise” over the strategic Golan.

Clinton and Netanyahu said little about the Syrian negotiating track during their joint news conference last week.

But U.S. officials, during unofficial briefings for reporters, seemed more optimistic after Netanyahu’s visit that a formula would be found for resuming the Israeli-Syrian talks, which were suspended last March.

Indeed, American officials now expect the talks to restart within two months, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.

The right wing is also concerned about what it views as Netanyahu’s ongoing caution about Jewish building in the West Bank.

For their part, settler leaders repeatedly complain that Netanyahu’s promises to them have not translated into specific permits and funding for new construction projects.

Netanyahu, however, can perhaps take some small consolation from the fact that problems with his hard-line right have driven deep wedges into the official opposition.

The Labor Party was torn this week in a debate over whether to link up with the conservatives in a no-confidence motion against the premier over Har Homa.

Labor doves insisted that this would be a piece of unpardonable political opportunism, but others in Labor sounded as furious as Begin and his friends over Netanyahu’s refusal to move ahead with construction projects in eastern Jerusalem.

“When it comes to Jerusalem, there is no room for shilly-shallying,” said Labor Knesset member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who recalled that the Har Homa project had first been approved when he served as housing minister under the previous Labor government.

Netanyahu is expected to make a decision on Har Homa next week.

Any consolation to be drawn from the opposition’s disunity on the Har Homa project and other related issues cannot extend to the sensitive issue of non- Orthodox conversions.

Labor and its allies are backing the Conservative and Reform movements’ efforts to thwart impending legislation, sponsored by the Orthodox parties and supported by the rest of the coalition. The proposed bill states that Israel would not recognize non-Orthodox conversions of Israeli citizens or residents, regardless of whether they are performed in Israel or abroad.

Under the proposed new legislation, if an Israeli studies for conversion under a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel and then flies to New York to have the ceremony performed, the conversion would not be registered by the Ministry of Interior.

This issue featured prominently in the premier’s discussions last weekend with Jewish religious leaders in New York.

Netanyahu told Orthodox leaders that he remained committed to the conversion bill.

In a separate meeting with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders, Netanyahu maintained that the proposed measure does not mean a change of the status quo in state- synagogue relations, because Israel has never recognized non-Orthodox conversions of Israelis when the ceremony is performed in Israel.

The non-Orthodox movements promise to hold a lively last-ditch stand in the coming weeks.

They still hope that Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, with seven Knesset seats, will support their cause — despite its commitment when joining the coalition to back its Orthodox partners on this measure.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, headed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, is said to favor the proposed measure insofar as conversions performed in Israel are concerned, but is less happy with its restriction on conversions performed abroad.

Whichever way the party finally goes, Netanyahu seems assured of troubled times — both within the Knesset and among the Diaspora Jewish leadership — as this contentious issue comes to a head.

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