Timing and Peace

Cities regularly try to extend their boundaries to bring in more tax revenue. Such moves are the grist of local politics.

But when the land-grabbing city is the most fought-over and debated on earth, the ramifications are anything but local. The neighbors are outraged, Washington is objecting, but Israel's government is moving ahead with its new plan for Jerusalem regardless.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his aides say it's just a way of "strengthening" the city economically, and nothing to get excited about. But any change in Jerusalem causes major excitement in the region. The ancient city is the most challenging of all items slated for discussion in the final-status talks that are supposed to culminate the Oslo peace process.

Palestinian leaders decry this move as the latest attempt by the Netanyahu government to short-circuit that process. The plan extends municipal taxes and services to nearby West Bank settlements - though Israeli officials argue this is an administrative convenience and doesn't change the political status of those settlements.

The government makes no secret of wanting to bolster the city's Jewish population to offset Arab residents' higher birth rate. It wants to maintain the current 70 percent Israeli majority. Many of the Israelis about to be annexed are less than thrilled, however, since higher taxes and orthodox politics come in the bargain.

Details aside, the timing couldn't be worse. The US is trying to restart the chronically idled peace engine. This "provocative step" on Jerusalem, as the State Department called it, is yet another breakdown.

There may be other strategies at work here. Mr. Netanyahu's moves on Jerusalem, including his outspoken support for Jews moving into traditionally Arab parts of the Old City, will please a wide swath of Israeli opinion. Maybe they're cover for coming redeployments of Israeli troops on the West Bank, in line with US desires.

If that's the calculation, however, it may not compute for the Palestinians. Oslo's greatest strength has been the sense of partnership between Israelis and Palestinians it initially fostered. Without that, peace has little real process. The Jerusalem announcement is another indication, sadly, that the parties are working at odds, not in partnership.

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