Spotlight on Jerusalem

Jerusalem's future is the diciest problem facing peace negotiators in the Middle East. Common ground is elusive, because the sides are poles apart. For most Israelis, there is no issue: The city will stay united as their country's capital. Palestinians view East Jerusalem, the older, mostly Arab section captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as their future capital.

So when the city is forced into the spotlight of regional politics, as by the Israeli decision to push ahead with a building project in East Jerusalem, emotions flare - and the peace process shudders. Such actions short-circuit the negotiating process, as President Clinton acknowledged March 3 in the course of Washington talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

What can the American administration do to deter Israeli building plans and allay the threat to peace? Mr. Clinton's rebuke to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was relatively mild, a calm "I prefer the decision not have been made." He would do well to make it clearer that his words were in line with the long-held US view that settlement building in territories occupied by Israel - including East Jerusalem - is a barrier to peace, violating the UN resolutions that serve as a basis for negotiations.

In the past, such US rebukes have sometimes been accompanied by more forceful actions, such as cutting off loan guarantees to Israel. At the least, the administration should turn up the volume on its criticism. Mr. Netanyahu faces an influence-buying scandal and rancor in his ranks. He doesn't need the added burden of a possible falling-out with the US.

This is not a matter of taking sides. It's a matter of protecting a peace process manifestly in the interest of both sides.

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