The Har Homa Test

What will happen to the spirit of Annapolis? The same thing that happened to the spirit of Hebron.

It is difficult to think of a place more suitable than Har Homa for holding the first test in the spirit of Annapolis. The comparison between Har Homa Crisis No. 2 and the development of Har Homa Crisis No. 1 can teach us whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has indeed started a new track or whether all the players are stuck on the old line.

Does Ehud Olmert, who pressed for the establishment of the new neighborhood in East Jerusalem, really see something different from the Prime Minister's Bureau than what he saw from the office of the mayor of Jerusalem? Will President George W. Bush pay lip service and eventually have to eat his words, just as Bill Clinton did 10 years ago?

Meanwhile, it is difficult to find the differences. Har Homa Crisis No. 1 also broke out a short while after an American attempt to revive the peace process. In February, 1997, a few weeks after it signed the Hebron agreement, the Netanyahu government decided to erect 6,500 housing units on the southern border of East Jerusalem, about one-third of them on private land owned by Palestinians. In the Palestinian Authority (and the Israeli peace camp) this plan was seen as another step in a scheme to cut off their capital from the West Bank. Yasser Arafat threatened to declare the establishment of an independent state and the Palestinian Legislative Council announced a general strike in the territories.

That crisis was the focus of Arafat's visit to the White House the following month. Clinton asked the Palestinian leader to be sensitive to Netanyahu's "coalition pressures." Arafat explained that he, too, had troubles at home and begged the president to at least demand that Israel delay the implementation of the decision to establish the neighborhood. The president sent envoy Dennis Ross to Netanyahu with a letter in which he demanded that the establishment of the neighborhood be postponed.

On the other side were the settlers and the activists from the right. They were flanked by then-mayor Olmert, who a short while earlier had pushed Netanyahu into the Western Wall tunnel - an adventure that ended with the death of 16 Israeli soldiers and dozens of Palestinians. Olmert declared that Har Homa was "the most substantive test of the government's ability to withstand pressure and demonstrate leadership." Work at the site began four days later. The U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, called U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk at 5:30 A.M. and instructed him to go to Netanyahu with a firm message stating that the United States saw the establishment of the new neighborhood as "a step that undermines everything that we are trying to do."

The ambassador made his protest, the Arabs demonstrated, the UN Security Council met, the United States cast a veto - and Har Homa was taken off the international agenda. Arafat licked another wound and Hamas threw more salt on it.

The new neighborhood - or, from one point of view, the "settlement" - which arose on the southern hills of Jerusalem became a mark of Cain on the forehead of the Oslo camp in Ramallah. Ed Abington, who was then American consul general in Jerusalem, said later, "Arafat understood that we do not understand, or do not want to understand, the enormity of the troubles that the settlements cause him at home. Arafat understood that he was left alone in the campaign."

Netanyahu identified the weakness of the international community and continued to nurture the settlers. The response today of spokesmen for the Olmert government gives rise to the fear that the Annapolis conference did not change the situation on the Israeli side. They claim that "the neighborhood is within the area of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, over which Israeli law is binding, and therefore there is no prohibition to building there, just as there is no obstacle to building in any other part of Israel."

We have already forgotten that the prime minister agreed that everything would be open to negotiation, including Jerusalem. Is this the way to build a wall to fortify the status of PA President Mahmoud Abbas? And what will "the world" do - all those people who were in attendance at Annapolis - if Olmert decides to hide behind "pressures from the coalition" and approves the new construction?

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said over the weekend that new construction in the territories does not contribute to building mutual trust. She also stressed the special importance of refraining from moves that could have influence a final status agreement. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, said that the decision to expand the neighborhood "is not helpful."

So the gentiles say these things - and thousands of Jewish residents laugh all the way to Har Homa. And what will happen to the spirit of Annapolis? The same thing that happened to the spirit of Hebron.