When news leaked that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was planning to transfer three Arab villages on Jerusalem's outskirts over to Palestinian control last week, the opposition got out their Biblical Old Testaments.
On the floor of the parliament, Reuven Rivlin, a leading figure in the right-wing Likud party, flipped to Jeremiah 32:6. There it says that God told the prophet Jeremiah to purchase land in Anathoth. In a country where even the stridently secular tend to know their Scriptures like baseball fans know Sammy Sosa's stats, there is rarely a shortage of such references that correspond to the modern map.
Except now, Anathoth is known as Anata. And today, as Israel hands over 6.1 percent of West Bank land to Palestinian control, Anata is not on the handover map approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday.
Instead, as Israel and Palestinian peace talks resume today at Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., issues such as Anata and the future of Jerusalem will be among the major challenges for negotiators. Palestinians envision traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed, as the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.
"The whole ordeal over Anata reflects very negatively on restoring faith in the peace process," says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"[The Bible] says that the Israelites would buy land in Anathoth, and that was a sign that they would be returned to their land after the exile of 2,700 years ago," says Mr. Rivlin. "It is a part of Jewish land as much as Jerusalem."
These days, "as much as" is often substituted for the real thing. In more hawkish circles, the Israeli concept of what constitutes a part of Jerusalem has expanded beyond its municipal boundaries and into Israeli-occupied West Bank villages that border the disputed city.
So when word got out that the long-delayed withdrawal would include Anata, the right-wing opposition and even ultraconservatives in Barak's Cabinet sounded the alarm. The sirens proclaimed that the very survival of Jerusalem as Israel's "undivided and eternal" capital was at stake. Conservatives vowed to carpet the country with posters and bumper stickers declaring: "Barak is dividing Jerusalem."
Instead, Palestinians will take charge of places such as Ubeidiya and Beituniya, crowded villages close to, but not adjoining Jerusalem. The handover will bring the area of the West Bank under full or partial Palestinian control to 39.8 percent, according to Israeli officials. The Palestinians already have civil control over heavily-populated Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor, says that by backing down, Barak missed an opportunity to start preparing Israeli public opinion for compromise. Instead, Mr. Benvenisti says, the battle ended in a victory for scare tactics. "They are using the Jerusalem name in vain," says Benvenisti. "Jerusalem is a myth and a myth is not something you can define."
For others, it comes down to a sort of chess game over where the Israelis and Palestinians will wind up at the end of the peace process. Some Israelis are concerned that if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gets control now of villages on Jerusalem's outskirts such as Anata and Abu Dis - the latter often mentioned by Israel as the compromise home of a Palestinian capital - he will try to carve out a corridor of Palestinian land into the heart of Jerusalem and its Old City.
Rivlin says the real reason he jumped to the defense of Anata - a hardscrabble Palestinian village - was not religion but the need to protect Jerusalem. "There is no way to give ... full sovereignty to the Palestinians there because then you bring a real danger to state of Israel," he says. The scenario Israel needs to protect itself from, he says, is one in which Jordan and a to-be Palestinian state could unite against Israel. Geopolitical analysts say the really difficult issue for the "final status" talks is not Jerusalem, but the territory surrounding it. For Prof. Shlomo Hasson, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is a contest between two intersecting axes. Palestinians have full or partial control of a north-south axis, while Israel, he says, controls the west-east axis.
Anata would have been a crucial break in the chain. "Israel has a lot of geopolitical interests in maintaining this corridor," says Professor Hasson. "I think Barak ... failed to read the map of Jerusalem.... And unfortunately, there is no clear government strategy when it comes to the problem of metropolitan Jerusalem."
Terms like metropolitan Jerusalem, greater Jerusalem, and more recently, the "Jerusalem envelope" have become part of the Israeli lexicon. Even for doves who support sharing control of the city with the Palestinians, the boom in Israeli settlements around Jerusalem since 1967 means that the map is sprinkled with a network of communities.
"How will we discuss the real Jerusalem if they can not agree to Anata?" asks Palestinian negotiator Erekat. "They know very well that these areas are already part of the Palestinian Authority's civilian control. And according to the agreements we've already signed, all of those areas will come under our full control. To say that they are part of Israel is ridiculous."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society