Debate Over Jerusalem: All Talk, No Action



With all the bowl games being played this time of year, one should be named for Jerusalem – that perennial political football that politicians like to kick around in hopes of scoring an electoral touchdown.

Israeli, Palestinian and American politicians are once again playing the game with gusto as elections in all three places shape up. Often, it's less a matter of serious debate than an old-fashioned game of "gotcha."

Last month, Newsweek quoted a campaign advisor to Ariel Sharon saying that in a third term, the prime minister was ready to trade Arab parts of the city for peace with the Palestinians.

That was all former premier Benjamin Netanyahu needed; he quickly dusted off the slogan he'd used against a previous opponent – "Peres will divide Jerusalem" – and slapped it on Sharon.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders were accusing Israel of "Judaizing" Jerusalem, and threatening to cancel their parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 unless Sharon withdraws his threat to block eastern Jerusalem Arabs from voting.

It's all political posturing. There are a quarter of a million Arabs in eastern Jerusalem, and Israel doesn't want them as citizens or voters. Very few actually voted in previous Palestinian Authority elections. After some huffing and puffing, Sharon will agree that they can vote this time as well.

Jerusalem is not the issue in American politics it was a few years ago, but it still pops up, as in the Pennsylvania senate race, where a pair of Catholics are battling for Jewish support.

Democratic challenger Robert Casey Jr. quickly changed his position on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from ignorance to gung-ho support after getting slammed by Republican incumbent Rick Santorum, who's fighting an uphill battle to retain his seat.

The Jerusalem embassy issue is the all-time winner in the pandering department. Every politician who wants Jewish campaign money – and who doesn't want to be branded anti-Israel by the pro-Israel lobby – insists that moving it from Tel Aviv should be an urgent national priority. And yet, Congress, which passed a law mandating the move back in 1995, has shown no interest in challenging presidents of both parties who refuse to implement it.

In other words, it's all for show.

There will be attempts to trip up opposing politicians, but no one is interested in a serious debate, just some good old-fashioned pandering. One reason may be that American Jews would rather not draw attention to the fact that they are more strongly opposed to dividing Jerusalem than are Israelis.

The latest American Jewish Committee Survey of Jewish Opinion shows only 36 percent of American Jews – compared to 49 percent of Israelis – would support ceding Arab parts of the city as part of a peace deal. And American Jewish support for splitting Jerusalem is shrinking.

That's not too unusual since American Jews tend to be less flexible and more hawkish than Israelis.

What makes the Israeli poll results more significant – evenly divided at 49 percent – is that the support for dividing the city is so great at a time when serious negotiations are still a long way off. That suggests that backing will only grow as prospects for peace improve.

When that Newsweek story appeared, Sharon quickly denied any intentions of dividing Jerusalem. Perhaps that's to be expected on an emotional issue in the middle of a political campaign, but don't forget that the last time around, Sharon hotly denied he had any plans for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

The future of Jerusalem won't be seriously discussed in this year's electoral campaigns in Israel, the Palestinian areas or America. For now, Israelis and Palestinians are yelling past each other; Washington is preoccupied elsewhere.

The basic reality is there can be no peace agreement with the Palestinians or an end-of-conflict declaration from the Arab world without a compromise on Jerusalem that satisfies both sides' needs. That issue will be left to late in final-status negotiations that are far from even beginning. Until then, Jerusalem will continue to be kicked around like the political football that it is.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.


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