Israeli deputies hail Jerusalem as 'eternal capital'

It was a proposition few Israelis could refuse, certainly not the politicians among them: that Jerusalem united and indivisible shall remain forever as the Jewish state's "eternal capital."

Presented to the Knesset for its first reading and predictably adopted by a 65-12 roll-call vote, the Jerusalem law is certain to be adopted officially by next week -- before the parliament adjourns for its summer recess.

The legislative speed was due not only to right-wing deputy Geula Cohen's ardor as the bill's sponsor, but also to the feisty mood generated here by a UN General Assembly session in which Israel is about to be told to withdraw unconditionally from the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem.

Mrs. Cohen conceived her parliamentary initiative as a way to embarrass Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his Likud coalition government for allegedly being too soft on territorial issues.

But shrewd politician that he is, Mr. Begin embraced the Cohen bill (and Mrs. Cohen herself upon his unexpected entrance into the Knesset chamber during the debate's final phase). He even did one better: proclaiming his intention to transfer his office to the city's Sheikh Jarakh quarter -- beyond the pre-1967 armistice line.

The Cohen bill, or Jerusalem law as it is destined to be termed, changes nothing on the ground. It merely codifies a de facto situation established by Israel 13 years ago and legislated in the initial annexation of the old city and adjacent Arab sectors.

This has caused diplomatic problems, however. When it was first mentioned as a legislative prospect, President Anwar Sadat last April ordered the Egyptian delegation negotiating Palestinian autonomy with Israel and the United States to come home.

Since then, it has elicited a series of Egyptian declarations about "East Jerusalem" (the former Jordanian part of the city) being an integral and inseparable component of the West Bank and about its 100,000 Arab residents being entitled to be included in the autonomy framework.

Israeli diplomats admitted privately their regrets that the Jerusalem question, generally regarded as the thorniest of the many problems confronting the autonomy negotiators, was suddenly pushed ahead to the top of the public agenda instead of being left for last as originally expected.

As the acrimony between Cairo and Israeli Jerusalem mounted, Mr. Begin's proposed new official address was leaked to the media. Cameras promptly focused on construction crews, composed mainly of Arab workmen, who have been putting finishing touches on the handsome stone structures.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Naftali Lavie, stung by the notion that Israel may be inflicting new diplomatic problems on itself by arranging for Mr. Begin's move -- possibly by the end of the summer, though officials insist that no date has been fixed -- contended that the site is actually on the slopes of Mt. Scopus, "in North Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem,' and in an area famed for the 1948 ambush on a Jewish Hadassah hospital convoy by Arab irregulars.

Mr. Lavie rejected the validity of any argument against the project, contending that American and Western European protests are prompted by ulterior motives: a desire to curry favor with Arab oil interests.

"It's just like France's decision to let Iraq have a nuclear reactor -- not out of a belief that it needs one but just because President Giscard d'Estaing thinks French influence in Iraq would be enhanced as a result," Mr. Lavie said.

Similarly, Mr. Begin's private secretary and closest assistant, Yehiel Kadishai, scoffed at reports that Secretary of State Edmund Muskie sent a "strongly worded message" to the prime minister warning him against the office move.

"There was no such message," Mr. Kadishai said.

But he conceded that word of the State Department's concern was passed to Mr. Begin through the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. Press attache William J. Dietrich said he could not confirm or deny this.

Since the law itself will not alter the status quo in Jerusalem, its importance can be seen in domestic political terms in addition to the diplomatic impact abroad.

It shows that the Israeli right can pull the Likud government in the direction if favors, mainly because the prime minister sees an election in the offing and does not want to alienate his nationalistic following, among them -- until she quit the Likud in anger against Mr. Begin's conciliatory approach to Egypt -- Geula Cohen.

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