Jerusalem's Future Not Found in Ballots

Tuesday's municipal elections point up the split between Arab and Israeli electorates.

Tuesday was election day, but East Jerusalem looked like a ghost town. Stores were shuttered, streets were deserted, and most of the people at polling stations were either voting monitors or Israeli police officers.

And, most important, there were activists from Fatah, the mainstream faction of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Six of them were arrested for trying to prevent people from entering polling stations or trying to enforce the Palestinian-called strike on the few establishments that remained open.

In most places where there is a disenfranchised minority, the community's leaders usually work doubly hard just to get out the vote. But in Jerusalem, a third of whose residents are Arab, the message was precisely the opposite. Don't vote in elections for the Jerusalem city council, mainstream Palestinian leaders told the approximately 118,000 eligible Arab voters in Jerusalem, issuing the same prohibition they have for the past three decades.

To vote, says the PLO, would legitimize Israeli control over Jerusalem's eastern, Arab half, which Israel took over in 1967.

This year, the question took on added significance because the battle for Jerusalem is on. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet set to vote on ratification of the Wye accord late yesterday, Israel and the Palestinians are moving closer to addressing the issue of Jerusalem in "final status" talks.

Such negotiations are supposed to deal with six key remaining issues in the peace process, but Jerusalem promises to be the most intractable of all to solve.

Now more than ever, the PLO has been concerned that any significant voter turnout in Jerusalem could damage its position, which argues that all Arabs who live in the eastern half of Jerusalem should eventually be part of the Palestinian capital they hope to establish.

Israel, for its part, has also been trying to ensure its command over Jerusalem ahead of the final-status talks. Concerned about the ratio of Arabs to Jews in the city, which seems to be ever tilting toward the Palestinians due to high birth rates, the Jerusalem municipality has been severely limiting construction in Arab neighborhoods while building rapidly in Jewish ones.

Right-wing mayor Ehud Olmert, who was reelected by a landslide in the elections, has also been blamed for a program confiscating the Israeli-issued identity cards of Arab residents of East Jerusalem - a way to push the demographic balance back in Israel's favor by forcing Palestinians to move out of Jerusalem to the West Bank.

Those were some of the issues that spurred Moussa Alayan to join the race for city council. But primarily, the first Palestinian candidate ever to run for city council decided that the PLO boycott of Jerusalem elections was less important than regular garbage pickup.

"The political situation should be separate from the social and economic situation," says Mr. Alayan before the election. "We suffer from a lot of discrimination from the city, and if there is even one Arab voice on council, it will change the whole picture."

Virtually no one disputes that Jerusalem's scruffy Arab neighborhoods are neglected compared with Jewish ones. Public schools in the east are overcrowded and underfunded, garbage pickup is sporadic, and many roads are even unpaved. But PLO officials say none of those problems can be disconnected from the larger picture.

"Our problem is not services from the municipality. Our problem is a political problem," says Hatem Abdel Qader, a Jerusalemite member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a critic of Alayan's election bid.

In the end, exit polls showed voter turnout among Arab Jerusalemites was the lowest it has been in many years. According to initial counts, Alayan had picked up about 1.8 percent of the vote, short of the 3 percent he would have needed to gain a seat.

Voter turnout was also low among secular residents of Jerusalem, who are waging their own, internal struggle against control of the city by ultra-Orthodox Jews. While only 40 percent of nonreligious Jews voted, more than 80 percent of the Orthodox Jewish sector did. As a result, religious Jewish parties now control a full half of council seats, compared with about one-third from the last election.

That raised new fears among many secular Israelis that Jerusalem could become a fundamentalist city, where religious law, like prohibition of work on the Sabbath, would dominate life for all.

"I'm very upset," said Rima Gelman, an Israeli woman as she shopped in downtown Jerusalem. "If it keeps up this way, I'll move to Italy. I'm in the minority."

Nationwide, much of the voting in mayoral and municipal elections showed an increasing fragmentation of Israeli society along ethnic and religious lines. Parties representing Russian Jews as well as religious Jews originally from Middle Eastern countries posted major gains.

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