JERUSALEM — As Israeli bulldozers begin munching up land for a new Jewish housing project, and Palestinians continue to declare that the peace process would effectively be devoured along with it, many observers are baffled by Israel's decision to gamble the future of peace on a little hill that has gone undeveloped since it came under Israeli control almost 30 years ago.
At the core of Israel's insistence on building in Har Homa, or Jebel Abu Ghneim, is a combination of factors that make it hard for the government to back down.
Foremost is the conventional political wisdom that the principle of keeping Jerusalem united enjoys wide support. Jerusalem sometimes seems to Israel what Social Security is to America: Offer to start slicing it up, and you may as well put your own political neck on the chopping block.
Now, even left-wingers like former Premier Shimon Peres have become subdued in their criticism. Har Homa doesn't violate the agreement, Labor leaders say, but the "timing" isn't right.
Even environmental groups, fighting to preserve a "green area" around Jerusalem, have decided not to do battle against the government plans to build out of fear of being marginalized.
"It would be committing political suicide," says a leader of one of Israel's leading preservation organizations, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's very difficult and unpopular to fight against building in Jerusalem. We realized ... that fighting Har Homa would jeopardize our efforts to fight elsewhere."
Interestingly, the pine trees that now blanket Har Homa are not a natural forest. Some were planted by the Jewish National Fund as part of the organization's Zionist activities seen by participants as "reclaiming land" and "turning the desert green."
But if Israel were to anchor its hold over all of Jerusalem, houses and not forests would be the best line of defense. So said the late Moshe Dayan, a well-liked former defense minister and founder of the Labor Party.
Nowadays, in an era when most Middle East rulers have some form of missile technology at their disposal, no one in Israel is talking about Har Homa as the completion of a protective barrier around Jerusalem. But the legacy of past building - and its historically bipartisan support for it - is enabling Netanyahu to claim he has a national consensus to move ahead on Har Homa.
What studies suggest, however, is a nation divided. A poll in the Ma'ariv newspaper March 19 said that while 60 percent of Israelis support the concept of building, 48 percent think the plans should be put on hold. Perhaps even more telling is a recent study on the status of Jerusalem in the eyes of Israeli Jews.
In that study, most said that they objected to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. But when asked whether they would give up specific Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian sovereignty - thus increasing the proportion of Jews within Israeli Jerusalem's borders - there was much more room for compromise.
It is no wonder that even in the "peace camp" Israelis seem ambivalent about what they think of the project. Among two Jeru- salem co-workers who support Labor, there is much dissent.
"We waited so long, why do we have to do this now?" asks Esther Shoshanim, who works at a gift shop in the city center. "We'll end up with clashes like last September, when 15 soldiers died. I don't know why the Labor Party isn't fighting this."
Her colleague, David Ben-Shalom, disagrees. "It's never a 'good time' with the Palestinians. They will always want Jerusalem, and it is our capital," he says. Though many Israelis don't agree with Netanyahu's reasons for building right now - mostly to placate a right-wing constituency disappointed over his recent moves to turn over land to Palestinians in the West Bank - once the Jerusalem conflict is opened it becomes a patriotic issue.
To do any less seems to some Israelis to symbolize a total retreat from their sovereignty here, one that might not stop until Israel is pushed back to its Jerusalem borders before the 1967 Six-Day War. Israelis who lived through that period often talk as though a compromise on Jerusalem would mean an automatic return to the conditions they endured during the almost 20 years of Jordanian control.
"I would be willing to move from here for peace," says Yaacov Gabriel, who lives on the Golan Heights, the area Israel captured from Syria in 1967 war. "But I know what a divided Jerusalem is like. I grew up in it, and I would fight to see Jerusalem is never divided again."
With emotions over Jerusalem running so high, Netanyahu may believe Israelis across the political spectrum will support him. But what he could miscalculate is an equally fervent Palestinian dedication to Jerusalem.