October 8, 2007

Israel Offers Concession On Jerusalem

Israel today offered support for a division of Jerusalem to address the demands of Palestinians, but only in exchange for concessions among Arab states and an end to fighting. A deputy of Ehud Olmert gave this public concession as a means to get Arab states into an American-sponsored peace conference, showing that real progress could be made on peace:

A confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that his government would support a division of Jerusalem, which is reportedly a key component of an Israeli-Palestinian declaration to be made at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference next month.

As part of recent negotiations between the sides, Deputy Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon has proposed turning over many of the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Ramon said the Palestinians could establish the capital of a future state in the sector of the city, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.

In return, Israel would receive the recognition of the international community, including Arab states, of its sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods and the existence of its capital there, Ramon said.

On Monday Ramon said even hawkish elements of Olmert's coalition, like Cabinet Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party, would back such an Israeli concession. The centrist Labor Party would also support the proposal, Ramon said.

Arab nations had approached the US peace conference with some skepticism. Several have hesitated to attend, claiming that a conference with no practical results would be worse than no conference at all. Condoleezza Rice and Olmert needed to show some significant potential for progress to convince them to attend.

The status of Jerusalem has been one of the main sticking points for all parties, perhaps the major sticking point. An offer by the Israelis to split Jerusalem and allow both states to base their capitals in the disputed city would certainly help move the peace process along. It may also be too tempting for the Arab nations to avoid. They have fetishized Jerusalem to such a point in their own nations that any chance to settle the dispute almost has to be taken. It's a shrewd move by the Israelis, if they really believe they can deliver on that promise.

The question will be whether Olmert can deliver it. Olmert has a weak standing in Israel at the moment, and most people believe he wants to get a peace agreement to maintain power. Israelis may not like the idea of offering part of Jerusalem as an appetizer, rather than holding that off for better concessions from Arab states down the line. Ehud Barak also offered a lot of concessions to Yasser Arafat, only to have them thrown back in his face and instead get the intifada for the next several years. Israelis will remember that result.

Still, the final status of Jerusalem is a critical point in the peace process, and at some point it will become the focus of negotiation. The question for Israelis is whether the people across the table from them are actual partners in peace, or Yasser Arafat under another guise. In this case, Mahmoud Abbas and the nearby Arab states need a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff more than ever, and might be ready to make a deal. We'll soon see.


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