Do U.S. Jewish Leaders Take Netanyahu Seriously?

The PM failed to call for an 'eternal, undivided Jerusalem' last week, but U.S. Jewish leaders didn't seem to take notice.

Either Jewish leaders in America have stopped being frightened by the specter of dividing Jerusalem, or they have stopped taking Israel's prime minister seriously. What other explanation could there be for the indifference with which 300 community leaders received the "heresy" on Jerusalem spoken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Wednesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Amos Biderman

Three days passed before one of the listeners directed the attention of the Haaretz correspondent in New York, Shlomo Shamir, to the unusual viewpoint presented by Netanyahu to the leaders of the Jewish community at New York's Plaza Hotel: "Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are," Netanyahu said in response to the question from Malcolm Honlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, on the fate of the eternal capital. Netanyahu did not say: "Israel's united capital forever and ever."

It is self-evident that if there are Jewish neighborhoods that will remain in place (probably a reference to Israeli sovereignty ), there are other neighborhoods that will be transferred to an eventual Palestine. Netanyahu was probably referring to the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, but who knows, maybe he understands that he'll also have to part from several Jewish "fringe neighborhoods," such as Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo?

Whatever the case, the prime minister did not hide behind the slogan "United Jerusalem will never be divided," a surefire recipe for enthusiastic applause from a Jewish audience. On the other hand, until quite recently he would have turned a sentence like "There are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that will remain where there are" into the slogan "Peres/Barak/Olmert will divide Jerusalem."

It will be interesting to see how Netanyahu extricates himself when Interior Minister Eli Yishai or Minister Benny Begin remind him that only three or four weeks ago he announced that "building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv."

He may react dismissively, explaining that they were making a big deal of a meaningless Freudian slip. But perhaps Netanyahu has learned from Defense Minister Ehud Brak. On the eve of Barak's trip to the Camp David summit in 2000, Barak alternately scattered and denied rumors about his intention of offering then-Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

According to knowledgeable sources in Ramallah, the day after meeting with Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama promised PA President Mahmoud Abbas that if by this coming winter Netanyahu doesn't place a reasonable map on the negotiating table, which includes the division of Jerusalem, he, Obama, will place his own map on the table.

Who knows as well as Netanyahu that presidential smiles on the eve of mid-term elections can end up as tears the following morning.

The Prime Minister's Office said that there is nothing new in the words, since Netanyahu has said in the past that in any agreement neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo will remain in Israeli hands. However, media adviser Nir Hefetz confirmed that this time the words were said in connection with a final status agreement in Jerusalem.

Undivided Palestine

In a few days from now the Erez Crossing into Gaza will be traversed by an endless convoy of official cars. The foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy will come to reorganize the Gaza Strip. The heads of the European Union want to turn the flotilla crisis into a long-term diplomatic and economic lever.

Instead of helping the residents of Gaza keep their heads above water (with the money from their donations ), the Europeans will demand that Israel allow them to swim. Thus, it's not enough to remove the ban against bringing coriander into the Strip; in order to pull Gazans above the poverty line, they must also be allowed both to import raw materials and to export strawberries to Europe and the West Bank.

The high-ranking visitors plan to ask Netanyahu to post their inspectors at the border crossings into Israel and to allow diplomatic and economic ties between Gaza and the West Bank. For that purpose, they need Hamas to play along.

The foreign ministers are considering inviting Abbas to join their trip to the Strip, in the hope that the visit will promote reconciliation between the Palestinian movements and rehabilitate the ties between the two Palestinian regions.

Although Jerusalem is not enthusiastic about the idea of creating a connection between Gaza and the West Bank, according to interim agreements, the final status agreement between Israel and a future Palestine will include an overland link between the two Palestinian territories. Israel has agreed that they constitute one political entity.

The overland link between Gaza and the West Bank preoccupied an Israeli-Palestinian team, the Aix Group (sponsored by Paul Cezanne University in Aix en Provence, France ), headed by Prof. Arie Arnon of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Saeb Bamya, the former PA deputy minister of economic affairs.

The group, which works in cooperation with the Peres Center for Peace in Israel, and the DATA center for research and consulting in Bethlehem, includes Israeli, Palestinian and international economists, former professors and government officials and members of economic organizations. Also participating in the discussion were observers from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the EU. The group's objective is to present decision makers with position papers for a final status agreement. The paper to be presented today in Jerusalem outlines a route for a highway and railroad between the Karni Crossing and Majd under Israeli and Palestinian authority. The military presence inside the overland route will be Palestinian, with Israeli troops securing the outside.

The cost of building the highway and the security facilities is estimated at $880 million. The experts recommend that the World Bank place this sum at the disposal of the Palestinians as a long-term loan. They estimate that planning and implementation will take seven to 10 years, and are therefore urge the state authorities to begin immediately with the preparation of a detailed plan. With the Peres Center for Peace a partner to the study, perhaps the president will pull some strings with the prime minister.