Backing Off in Jerusalem

ISRAEL'S Labor government announced late on May 22 that it would suspend its previously ironclad plan to expropriate Arab land in East Jerusalem. This is a desirable step. But it did not come as a result of a change of heart, the desire to avoid the appearance of injustice, or any quiet persuasion from the Palestinian or American leadership.

Rather, the step was taken by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for reasons of sheer political survival: He had been surprised by an unprecedented coalition of Israeli Arabs and the right-wing Likud Party. Had he not backed off the taking of 130 acres in East Jerusalem, his government would have collapsed by a no-confidence measure.

Last week in a United Nations Security Council vote condemning the expropriation in East Jerusalem, the United States, the broker of the Oslo peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, did not even abstain. It was the sole supporter of Israel in a 14-to-1 resolution. As articulated by Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi in an interview (see Page 18), the US vote is seen by many Palestinians as no less than a betrayal. In retrospect, what did the US get for it?

The US should have a productive partnership with Israel. But it cannot continue to be half an honest broker and half a partisan in the peace process. Even as the Labor Party is backing off on East Jerusalem, the US Congress is stepping up efforts to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem -- certainly an ''in your face'' gesture not only to the Palestinians, but to the Arab and Islamic worlds.

A basic shift in US -- and Israeli -- attitudes is needed. After the 1967 war Israel annexed East Jerusalem and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. About a third of Arab land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated. Over the next five years, Tel Aviv plans 5,000 new apartments per year in East Jerusalem -- adding to an overall plan for a ''Greater Jerusalem'' that guarantees to be a thorn in the side of the peace process.

What will it take to stop the land confiscation around Jerusalem? International pressure, and a commitment by Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The stakes of peace and justice make the commitment worth it.

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