U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright coldly dismissed the Israeli initiative as "not helpful" to the peace process.
Palestinians and the international community decry Israel's plan to expand Jerusalem
By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent
Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has again demonstrated its talent for lumbering into a crisis -- with the Palestinians, with the international community and, incidentally, with some of its own voters.
In approving a plan on Sunday that calls for expanding the Jerusalem municipal jurisdiction eastward into the occupied West Bank and westward into Israel proper, his Cabinet underestimated the depth of Arab distrust, among Yasser Arafat's Palestinian ministers and in the street. Since Netanyahu came to power two years ago this month, the Palestinians have learned to put the worst interpretation on any Israeli initiative.
The prime minister also seems to have underestimated the degree to which the United States, the European Union and other interested bystanders are watching every move in his contorted quest for "peace with security" -- and increasingly concluding that the Palestinians are right to suspect him.
Netanyahu insisted that the proposed changes were of a purely administrative nature. "This is not," he said on Sunday, "a change of status, from a political standpoint." It has to do with improving services such as refuse collection, he contended. Neither the Palestinians nor the Americans, striving to broker a further Israeli withdrawal from West Bank, were convinced.
East Jerusalem, part of the territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, was annexed to Israel. In legal terms, the West Bank remained under military administration. The Palestinians interpret the latest move as an attempt to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, which the Palestinians hope to recover in future stages of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement.
They also condemn the Cabinet's decision as a pre-emptive strike to change the Jewish-Arab balance of Jerusalem, which both nations claim as their capital and which was supposed to be negotiated in the final-status stage of the peace process. There are already twice as many Jews as Arabs in the disputed holy city. If the ratio tilts even further, with the incorporation of Jewish towns and villages from both sides of the old Green Line border, the Palestinians' chances of salvaging anything would dwindle.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, denounced the Israeli plan as "a declaration of war on the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem." He called it a "racist, religious decision." It would, he argued, "upset natural demographic development and Judaize Jerusalem."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright coldly dismissed the Israeli initiative as "not helpful" to the peace process. She told American television interviewers: "Anything that is done at this point on something that is a final-status issue cannot really be helpful when we are in a period of very intensive and constructive dialogue."
A leaked assessment by American diplomats on the spot said bluntly: "Until now, there is a clear difference between Israel and the West Bank. This plan blurs this distinction and makes the Green Line irrelevant."
The document, as reported in Monday's Ha'aretz newspaper, added that the plan represented "a unilateral change, undertaken without the knowledge of the Palestinian Authority, and, of course, without its approval. The phrase 'Greater Jerusalem' has become an ethnically and geographically defined entity. It has defined borders, within which the power of civil rule will be applied to lands considered occupied."
At the same time, Netanyahu is encountering passionate opposition from the Jewish communities who cherish their independence and do not want their local services to be dictated from Jerusalem City Hall. These interested critics include two prominent members of Netanyahu's Cabinet, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who live in threatened suburbs inside Israeli territory.
During Sunday's Cabinet debate, Mordechai is reported to have branded the expansion plan "cheap demagoguery." Hanegbi called it "thuggish and cynical," adding, "Nothing attests more to the weakness of Jerusalem than the fact that it wants to annex people who don't want to live there."
The expansion was approved in principle, but the Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem City Council have yet to work out the details: which communities will be included in the "umbrella authority"; what their status will be. The answers are scheduled to be submitted to the Cabinet in August and the Knesset in September.
If the plan goes ahead, it will deal a wounding, if not mortal, blow to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Netanyahu may yet be persuaded to put it on ice. The contentious plan to build thousands of Jewish homes on Har Homa, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, offers a precedent. More than a year after the original announcement, not a single home has yet been built. The prime minister has preferred not to take the international flak.