Israeli Rightist Mayor Tries To Keep Holy City Whole


From the window of his conference room where small archaeological treasures are on display, Mayor Ehud Olmert enjoys one of the best views of Jerusalem: a panorama of stone homes, modern high-rises, and famed Old City shrines holy to the world's three main monotheistic religions.

It is an awesome domain whose sovereignty Mr. Olmert says will not be shared with another nation, despite Palestinian aspirations to make the eastern half of Jerusalem the capital of the state they want to declare.

To prevent that, Olmert says he's doing all he can to boost services and standards of living in the city's Arab areas. His logic: If Jerusalem's Arabs are content, they won't agitate for control of the city.

But critics say Olmert, a member of parliament from the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is trying to ensure Israel's firm grip on East Jerusalem before it enters final-status talks with Palestinians, which put the city's future up for discussion.

It was Olmert who in September helped open a new exit to a controversial archaeological tunnel that runs near Jewish and Muslim holy sites. The move triggered riots that led to Israeli-Palestinian gun battles.

Stoking the fires?

Now, after a few calmer months in Jerusalem as negotiators try to reach agreements to restart the peace process, Olmert has given eager backing to a plan that could again inflame tensions: A blueprint for two new Jewish neighborhoods in Arab sections of East Jerusalem.

The plan was apparently put on hold to avoid further Israeli-Arab tensions, but Olmert now denies that any such postponement was made and says the plans "will be signed in a matter of days" by the Interior Ministry, which has authority over the matter.

Olmert says the signing is not linked to a deal on the Israeli troop pullout from the disputed West Bank town of Hebron. But American officials here say they are concerned Netanyahu will announce plans to expand settlements to placate the Israeli right - which favors settlements - when the impending redeployment agreement is signed.

What makes these planned neighborhoods so controversial is their location. In one map sketched by pre-Netanyahu peace accord architects, a Palestinian capital called al-Quds - the Arabic name for Jerusalem - would comprise mostly outlying Arab areas and nearby villages.

The new al-Quds would have a corridor to allow free access to the Temple Mount, home to the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, which are holy to Islam. But the corridor would be formed with land in Ras el-Amud. And adding a Jewish settlement there would eliminate that option.

The mayor says that he hasn't seen any such map. "I doubt that I would recommend that you put plans like that on hold for maps I haven't seen," says Olmert.

Yet the mere idea seems to have more Israelis interested in exploring venues for compromise on Jerusalem. A new study by the Hebrew University found that 45 percent of Jews here would seriously consider proposals to grant Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods and nearby villages, excluding the Old City. But Olmert says both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites want the city to remain united. "My feeling is that Jerusalem is not subject to negotiations," he says.

He also has no regrets about the decision to open the tunnel. "It didn't spark anything," Olmert says, banging a fist on his desk.

A articulate lawyer by profession, rather than answering a difficult question Olmert often tries to convince the questioner that their premise is wrong. "The rioting happened 36 hours afterward, when Arafat gave the orders to have it erupt." In fact, rioting started almost immediately after the tunnel was opened - although the gun battles began more than two days later.

As an articulate hard-liner, Olmert is seen as a future rival to Netanyahu. But he has other issues to resolve first.

He is under indictment for his alleged role in a donation scam when he was the Likud party's treasurer in 1988. Maintaining his innocence, the mayor has waved his parliamentary immunity and is to soon stand trial on charges of aggravated fraud, falsifying documents, violations of income tax, and party funding laws.

The clash between Jerusalem's secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox Jews who helped get Olmert elected - and who have benefited from his tenure - could also become more problematic.

Amos Mar-Haim, a Labor-affiliated economist who plans to run against Olmert in 1998, sees this as one of the mayor's failings. "The feeling in the city is a very bad one," says Mr. Mar-Haim.

Olmert insists the tensions between religious and secular Jews are exaggerated. In his view, they are perhaps not so different from tensions between groups in other cities such as New York.

Friend of Rudy

In fact, Olmert's staffers say there is a kinship between their boss and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who came to visit the Olmert last year. They have much in common: Both are young conservatives. Both are attorneys; both are less than popular with their cities' minorities.

But the similarities end there. No one is trying to break off a piece of New York and make it the capital of another nation. And Olmert's domain is coming under increasing pressure to break into two parts as Israelis and Palestinians head into talks about the city's future.

"This is not the only city in the world that has an ethnic minority," he says emphatically. "Not every minority can have its own sovereignty."

Though prevented by his mayoral position from joining Netanyahu's Cabinet, Olmert says he expects a big role in talks on Jerusalem. But asked if the Cabinet will survive an accord on Hebron, Olmert responds, "I'm not in politics. I'm just a mayor."

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