Avoiding Jerusalem

Now that the Winograd report is behind us, PM Ehud Olmert appears to have gained a renewed mandate to deal intensively with two key Palestinian issues. One involves Hamas and Gaza and does not directly concern us here. The other is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that Olmert has developed together with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US President George W. Bush. That process now appears to offer the main rationale for Olmert’s ongoing premiership and the only potential achievement separating him from new elections in which public disappointment with his performance in the Second Lebanon War is likely to sweep him from office.

Of the two "existential" issues–Jerusalem and refugees–that most challenge both Olmert and Abbas in their attempts to come to grips with the demands of a peace process, Jerusalem is the most pressing and immediate. First, because it is a roadmap phase I issue, and the Israeli and Palestinian governments are pledged, under the watchful eye of the United States, to deliver on their phase I obligations. The roadmap states that in phase I, "Government of Israel reopens Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and other closed Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem based on a commitment that these institutions operate strictly in accordance with prior agreements between the parties." Thus far, neither the Chamber of Commerce, the Detainee Rehabilitation Center nor Orient House has been reopened, nor, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, have negotiations been launched toward this end.

A second reason why Jerusalem is so central to the process is the existence of planned or ongoing Jewish building activity in East Jerusalem, in neighborhoods like Gilo, Har Homa and Shimon HaTzadik. Olmert, who presumably wants to negotiate in good faith, seems to be less than fully in control with regard to Jewish settlement activity east of the Jerusalem green line, whether sponsored by the Jerusalem municipality, settler groups or his own government’s Ministry of Housing. That activity makes it harder to negotiate a Jerusalem settlement in which an "Arab Jerusalem" becomes the Palestinian capital–the kind of settlement Olmert ostensibly seeks.

Third, and apropos negotiations over Jerusalem, Olmert has committed to the Shas party leadership to postpone them as a condition for keeping Shas in the coalition. Assuming Abbas acquiesces in this internal Israeli political concession, the ramifications for the peace process itself are far-reaching. For one, avoiding discussion of Jerusalem constrains the ability of the peace negotiators to discuss those aspects of additional final status issues that inevitably touch on Jerusalem, including borders, settlements and even (Sho’fat refugee camp) refugees. Then too, this arrangement implies that the moment when, assuming all other final status issues have been agreed, the two sides begin deliberating the complex Jerusalem issue, Olmert will be plunged by Shas’ withdrawal into a coalition crisis that further constrains his capacity to complete negotiations.

One could argue, of course, that this is a tempest in a tea pot: that there is virtually no likelihood Israelis and Palestinians will agree on the other final status issues; that Israel’s non-compliance with its roadmap phase I obligations regarding Jerusalem is fully justified by the Palestinians’ failure to deliver on their security undertakings; and that ongoing Hamas control in Gaza in any case renders the entire Annapolis process meaningless. But it is precisely because of these major obstacles to a successful peace process that an examination of the status of Jerusalem in the process is so revealing–and so disappointing. Looking at Jerusalem, we must conclude that the entire process is either a cynical exercise on Olmert’s part, or a genuine reflection of his lack of strategic grasp of the real demands of a peace process.