Warning: Jerusalem on chopping block

Posted: September 03, 2008
1:00 am Eastern

By Aaron Klein
© 2008

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is lying to the world. He has repeatedly denied he is negotiating ceding territory in Jerusalem to the Palestinians, but I can confirm with absolute confidence Olmert’s government is currently discussing the division of Jerusalem as part of talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state, at least on paper, by the end of the year.

But most Israelis and Americans, including the influential U.S. Jewish community, are in the dark about the Jerusalem negotiations, allowing the Israeli government to continue the virtual chopping up of Israel’s capital city without any major protest or distraction.

Olmert’s plan seems to be to wait until the last minute, until just before signing a binding document that will be guaranteed by a letter from the U.S. president, to announce Jerusalem is being negotiated.

The U.S. government, by the way, is heavily involved in the Jerusalem negotiation process, offering the Israeli and Palestinian teams staged proposals on how to split the holy city and pressing Israel to include pledges to evacuate parts of Jerusalem in a document expected to be released before January outlining a Palestinian state.

Olmert is tactfully dancing around admitting he’s negotiating Jerusalem in part because of commitments to his governing coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which has claimed it would bolt Olmert’s plurality government if Jerusalem is discussed during the intense, almost daily Israeli-Palestinian meetings that were initiated at last-November’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference.

A minor problem for Olmert is that his official Kadima Party platform calls for Jerusalem to remain united.

According to informed sources, Jerusalem talks are being held under secretive conditions, with a small number of Israelis and Palestinians on each negotiating team. The Israeli team is led by Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni, a front-runner for this month’s leadership primary in Olmert’s Kadima Party.

Olmert has pledged to resign after a new Kadima leader is installed, but he could stay on as prime minister if the new Kadima leader fails to form a stable government coalition, precipitating new general elections in 90 days and giving Olmert some more time in power. Indeed, Olmert has told Palestinian negotiators he expects to remain in office beyond September to conclude an agreement.

Olmert likely figures he can deny Jerusalem is being negotiated up until it is time for a Palestinian state document to be issued, and by then it will be difficult to stop. And Israelis, Palestinians and Americans are working overtime to ensure that document comes soon.

Some members of Olmert’s Kadima Party are well aware Olmert and Livni are ceding parts of Jerusalem during negotiations.

Just last week, senior Kadima member and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz accused Livni of dividing Jerusalem, stating he heard that Livni had made concessions on Jerusalem during talks with the Palestinians. But Mofaz’s statements didn’t really penetrate.

Until the past few days, Olmert steadfastly denied Jerusalem is even up for future negotiation. But the prime minister’s office finally allowed Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, at least to concede Jerusalem will one day be on the negotiating table, explaining a “mechanism” has been created to deal with the “issue” of Jerusalem.

“Of all the final status core issues, the issue of Jerusalem is probably the most difficult, and unlike some of the other issues, we have yet to start negotiating the future of Jerusalem. Therefore, in order to not let the process fall victim to its weakest link, we have the establishment of an agreed upon mechanism that would continue to deal with Jerusalem. That mechanism was created in such a way that it would address the concern of both sides,” Regev told me in response to a query.

Regev would not detail which “mechanism” had purportedly been created to discuss Jerusalem or when such discussions may take place.

Regev commented amid Israeli news media reports last week stating Olmert presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with a plan for international parties to contribute proposals on how both sides should negotiate the status of Jerusalem. Olmert and Abbas met for a round of advanced talks last week.

The Israeli media reports, though, are weeks too late.

Senior Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic sources confirmed to me both sides are well along negotiating Jerusalem with input from the international community and with Palestinian officials claiming the talks are in advance stages.

One Palestinian negotiator described as “crazy” the intensity and frequency of Israeli-Palestinian talks in recent weeks, saying both sides have been meeting on a daily basis, usually at the highest levels.

The negotiator said the two teams are “closer than ever” on coming to an agreement on the status of Jerusalem.

This claim was verified by other diplomatic sources involved in the negotiations.

The Palestinian negotiator said Jerusalem would be divided along the framework of the 2000 U.S.-brokered Camp David accords. He said the general philosophy for dividing Jerusalem would be “Arab for Arab and Jew for Jew,” meaning that most Arab-majority eastern sections of Jerusalem would be granted to the Palestinian Authority while Israel would retain Western, Jewish-majority sections.

Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – during the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians have claimed eastern Jerusalem as a future capital. About 244,000 Arabs live in Jerusalem, mostly in eastern neighborhoods. Jerusalem has an estimated total population of 724,000, the majority Jewish.

A number of Arab-majority eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods widely regarded as slated for a Palestinian state include large numbers of Arabs who live on Jewish-owned land illegally. The Jewish National Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit, owns hundred of acres of eastern Jerusalem land in which tens of thousands of Arabs illegally constructed homes the past few decades. Arabs are now the majority on the Jewish-owned land in question.

According to top diplomatic sources, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited the region last week, pressed Israel to sign a document by the end of the year that would include Jerusalem by offering the Palestinians a state in Israel’s capital city as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli team would rather conclude an agreement on paper by the end of the year that would give the Palestinians a state in the West Bank, Gaza and some Israeli territory, leaving conclusions on Jerusalem for a later date, the informed diplomatic sources said.

The sources said the Palestinian team has been pushing to conclude a deal by January on all core issues, including Jerusalem, and has been petitioning the U.S. to pressure Israel into signing an agreement on paper that offers the Palestinians eastern Jerusalem.

Rice, the sources said, has asked Israeli leaders to bend to what the U.S. refers to as a “compromise position,” concluding an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of the year that guarantees sections of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. But Israel would not be required to withdraw from Jerusalem for a period of one to five years.

America, meanwhile, has provided the Israelis and Palestinians with a specific plan to split Jerusalem.

One U.S. plan for Jerusalem was divided into timed phases, and among other things called for Israel eventually to consider forfeiting parts of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.

According to the first stage of the U.S. proposal, Israel would initially give the PA some municipal and security sovereignty over key Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. The PA would be allowed to open some official institutions in Jerusalem, could elect a mayor for the Palestinian side of the city and would deploy some kind of so-called basic security force to maintain law and order. The specifics of the force were not detailed in the plan.

The initial stage also calls for the PA to operate Jerusalem municipal institutions, such as offices to oversee trash collection and maintenance of roads.

After five years, if both sides keep specific commitments called for in a larger principal agreement, according to the U.S. plan, the PA would be given full sovereignty over agreed upon eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods and discussions would be held regarding an arrangement for the Temple Mount. The plan doesn’t specify which parts of the Temple Mount could be forfeited to the Palestinians or whether an international force may be involved.

The PA also could deploy official security forces in Jerusalem separate from a non-defined basic force after the five-year period and could also open major governmental institutions, such as a president’s office, and offices for the finance and foreign ministries.

The U.S. plan leaves Israel and the PA to negotiate which Jerusalem neighborhoods would become Palestinian.

It was unclear whether the U.S. proposals were accepted, but what is clear is that Jerusalem is on the chopping block. When this becomes mainstream knowledge, when it will be almost too late for protest, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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