Olmert’s life is complicated by more than just Israelis’ opposition to compromises on Jerusalem. In the last several months, he has also faced a revolt by diaspora Jews, who are making demands strangely analogous to the claims of Muslims in the broader Arab world. Abbas can’t give up on Muslims’ historic claims over the holy sites of Jerusalem, and Olmert is hearing similar voices from the Jewish community, especially in the United States. The more extreme advocates for diaspora input say he does not have the right to compromise on Jerusalem without broader Jewish consent. More moderate voices concede that the final decision will be taken by Israel, but they demand to be consulted, whatever that means.
Israelis do not necessarily like the idea of diaspora Jews meddling in the affairs of the state. A survey conducted for the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith International a couple of weeks ago revealed that Israelis’ view on this issue is largely driven by their political stance. The more traditional an Israeli is, the more he opposes concessions in Jerusalem: Fifty-one percent of secular Jews, 80.1 percent of somewhat observant Jews, and 91.1 percent of strictly observant Jews oppose concessions in Jerusalem.
And what about the right of American Jews to be part of the decision-making process? Thirty-one-point-seven percent of secular Israelis do not want them involved, but for religious Israelis the opposite is true: Almost 60 percent want U.S. involvement, probably hoping it would make Olmert’s life more difficult when it comes to the holy city.
This is an unbelievably, endlessly challenging issue. Jerusalem is the eternal homes of Jews around the world. It is also linchpin of any peace plan and the most difficult element for either side to compromise on, a reality Jeffrey Goldberg discusses in “Prisoners.”
When I was researching my story on Jewish hawks, I asked Gary Ratner, western head of the American Jewish Congress, who speaks for Jerusalem. He said, “Diaspora Jewry have an absolute right to weigh in. Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people, not the Israelis.”
Yesterday, though, I spoke with Tom Dine, the man who built the American Israel Public Affairs Committee into the mastodon, save for extinction, it has become, and he said the only way to increase Israeli security in its hostile neighborhood is to realize a practical peace plan with the Palestinians. That means, he said, budging on the boundaries of Jerusalem.
“I know it is an emotional issue,” he said. “I used to throw out that red meat when I was at AIPAC.”
Prime Minister Olmert learned that the hard way when he floated the possibility of dividing the Holy City. (An Orthodox rabbi in L.A. similarly caught flak when he asked American Jews to let Israel do its own negotiating.)
The prime minister’s suspicions were further inflamed by a letter from Ronald Lauder, the leader of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder, a supporter of Olmert’s rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote that “[w]hile recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state, it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.” Olmert retaliated by canceling a planned speech to the WJC’s board of governors.
Elsewhere, Olmert kept his anger in check. His advisers told him his attitude had alienated U.S. Jewish leadersâleaders Israel wants to keep onside. According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish-American public opinion, a majority of diaspora Jews oppose compromises in Jerusalem. Complicating matters even further, the more active on Israeli issues the Jew is, the more he is prone to oppose concessions.
So, in a conversation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in mid-January, Olmert was more conciliatory: He told the attendees he wants their voices to be heard on the future of Jerusalem. Last week, meeting many of those leaders in Jerusalem, he tried, again, to calm things down. He told them Jerusalem “will be the last issue that is negotiated upon. It is the most sensitive issue and the most difficult.” And he assured them he will listen.
But the exact role of world Jews was not determined, and it never can be. Not in a way that can satisfy both diaspora leaders and Israelis. Either non-Israeli Jews have a voice and some influence in this process, on the premise that Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, or they don’t, because Israelis get to make decisions related to their country, their security, and their daily lives. Olmert is right in thinking this question is nothing more than a trap. If he consults with diaspora leaders and goes on to reject their advice, they’ll say he didn’t act in good faith. If he accepts their opinion as a real factor, how will he ever be able to reach an agreement?
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