WHY is the Clinton administration giving generous support to a foreign government that is implementing, in its major city, the grossest forms of discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity?
The city - sadly for those of us who love it - is Jerusalem. It is a city whose religious significance and stunning bicultural flavor has, or once had, the potential to become a beacon of coexistence for the Middle East and the world. But it is a city whose present rulers are pursuing shortsighted and vindictive policies that threaten to undermine the whole fragile edifice of a broader regional peace.
Most Jewish Americans quite rightly would be horrified if there were still communities in our country that were ``off limits'' to Jews or blacks. But too many of them actively support policies in Jerusalem that build entire new neighborhoods that are off limits to the city's many Christians and Muslims.
During 28 years of Israeli rule over east Jerusalem, the city's original Palestinian residents have seen their public and private lands seized to build Jews-only settlements. The generous municipal services enjoyed by the city's Jewish areas, old or new, contrast starkly with the potholes and lack of amenities to which the Palestinian areas are subject. Palestinians make up around one-third of the population of the city and contribute 26 percent of its local taxes. But they receive services worth only about 5 percent of the city's total.
Unjust? Absolutely. That was why it was such a good omen in September 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin broke with long precedent and made a formal agreement that the city's future would be determined not unilaterally but through negotiations with the Palestinians. One catch, though. Those talks, like all others on ``final status'' issues, are not due to start until 1996. And in the months since September 1993, the Israelis have continued a massive program of changing Jerusalem's ethnic-religious character in their own favor.
That policy, like others that the Rabin government has pursued, has undermined confidence that the commitments it made in 1993 were undertaken in good faith.
And what has been the policy of the American president who presided so genially over the 1993 handshake? Has his administration pointed out to its friends in Israel that, if Jerusalem is to be the subject of negotiations in 1996, then nothing should be done to change its character in the interim? That would be standard legal and negotiating practice.
But no. The Clintonites have decided instead that the $3 billion-plus they pour annually into Israel's prosperous economy now goes with even fewer strings attached than ever before. Under Mr. Clinton, there has been serious erosion of any United States commitment to principles of international law in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The administration still pays lip service to the idea - embraced by all other major governments of the world - that until its final status is resolved, Jerusalem remains ``occupied territory.''
As such, its original residents should be subject to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, including protection of their property rights and protection from the implantation of a nonnative population. (It is ironic to note that these conventions were drawn up in 1949 to prevent recurrence of the massive demographic manipulation to which Central Europe was subject under the Nazis.)
But, in practice, the Clintonites have backed away from applying the Geneva Conventions to the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. More than that, they have dissolved any idea of linkage between the money they give to Israel and the huge investment the Israeli government continues to make in changing the city's demographic makeup.
The Clinton administration has misplayed its role as sponsor of Arab-Israeli negotiations. It has caved in to the most one-sided special interests on Jerusalem. In the broad texture of Israeli-Arab relations, Jerusalem is the most important issue of all.
If we get to 1996, and there is little or nothing left in Jerusalem for the Palestinians to negotiate about, then there can be no hope of reconciliation between these two rival claimants to the Holy Land. The ramifications for the rest of the Middle East peace process are huge.
How long will it be before the Clinton administration acts with leadership on this vital issue? I believe that the idea of Jerusalem as a ``city of peace'' - a place where reciprocal and just relations between neighbors are the norm, where conflicts are resolved through talks rather than brute force, and where the cultures and national aspirations of all its residents are celebrated - is one that most Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians would actively support.
The present policies are a recipe for disaster.