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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2001 / 7 Teves, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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Dividing Jerusalem

Barak should listen to the diaspora before he gives away the Temple Mount -- WHEN IT WAS FIRST reported last year that Israel’s government was considering concessions to the Palestinians on parts of the city of Jerusalem, most American Jews were incredulous. Many were either skeptical about the veracity of such articles or believed the reports were political smokescreens created by opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

But with the current Middle East negotiations in Washington reaching yet another moment of truth this week, it is no longer possible for American Jews to remain in denial about what is being discussed.

Last July at Camp David, Barak laid a far-reaching proposal on the table that would have given the Palestinian Authority sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem as well as approximately 90 percent of the West Bank. P.A. leader Yasser Arafat, who was to rule over this new Palestinian state, turned Barak down cold and then launched a new round of violence and intifada riots in an effort to wrench even more out of the Israelis.

Israel responded to the urging of President Clinton and returned to the peace talks without a Palestinian cease-fire. Barak’s desire to reach peace is accentuated by the fact that new elections for prime minister are scheduled for February. The prime minister is trailing badly in opinion polls and most observers believe he needs a deal with the Palestinians to survive a challenge from Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

While many in Israel question his right to bargain on these issues because of his recent resignation and lack of a parliamentary majority, Barak believes he can win a new mandate with a peace accord. Thus, the prime minister has apparently resolved to go even further to achieve a deal which will, he hopes, finally end the conflict.

Pushing hard to force an agreement before his own term of office ends, President Clinton has put forward so-called “bridging proposals,” which would give even more to Arafat than Barak offered at Camp David. Along with 95 percent of the West Bank and a division of Israel's capital Jerusalem, the Palestinians will get most of the Old City and sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the most sacred place in Judaism.

Can the Palestinians say no to such a sweet deal?

Given Arafat’s intransigent mood, it is possible that the answer may be yes. Having seen how much he has gained by a policy of violence, he may reason that even more violence will ultimately net the Palestinians even more.

As much as many American Jews may resent President Clinton for trying to win a Nobel Peace Prize by dividing Jerusalem, it must be understood that this will only become a reality if it has Israel’s assent. Barak has stated publicly that if Arafat agrees with Clinton’s plan, he, too, will accept it.

But it is Israel’s people who will be the ultimate judges of the value of these concessions. It is they alone who will be the arbiters of Israel’s future via the ballot box in February.

Is there a majority in Israel that would favor severing Israel's ties to its heritage, dividing the capital and placing virtually every Jewish neighborhood in the city in the cross-hairs of Palestinian gunmen?

Most observers doubt it. But Barak is planning on selling his plan to a war-weary Israel by promising them that if they turn him down, they will get a war. If so, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy brought about by a situation that Barak alone created.

The outcome of the talks will also have an enormous impact on American Jews.

But as traumatic as this debate may be in Israel, it is just as important for these issues to be thoroughly aired here.

It is likely that a majority of American Jews will support Israel’s government no matter what its policies on Jerusalem turn out to be. But Israel’s leaders need to recognize that there are some issues that are larger than even the struggle for political power in the Jewish state. Jerusalem is one such issue.

If Barak is about to do something that will forever alter the Jewish people’s ties to its sacred places, then he should not be indifferent to American Jewry’s thoughts about this sacrifice of part of our historic and spiritual heritage.

The prime minister should not be surprised if American Jews view his plan with horror. Those who love Israel pray for peace but the idea of surrendering the Temple Mount, the Old City along with all of the other territories to Arafat is staggering. Like many, if not a majority of Israelis, a large number of American Jews believe that Arafat's word is worthless and that even were he to pledge that these concessions ended the conflict, a few months later (at the latest) the Palestinians would be prepared to riot and murder to gain even more from Israel.

While only the citizens of Israel have a right to make the final decisions about peace and security, the stake that Diaspora Jews have in the future of Jerusalem should not be ignored. American Jews may not have the right to tell Israel what to do, but it would be wrong for Barak to ignore our sensibilities on this issue.

Jerusalem is sacred to all Jews. Having come into office pledging not to divide the city and having often told American audiences about the indivisibility of the capital, Barak now needs to tell us why he thinks an agreement with Arafat will be worth such a costly sacrifice.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, Barak must not take American Jewish opinion on Jerusalem for granted. If he does, he will find that the main prop of American support for Israel will no longer be behind him.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin