News Analysis: All roads toward Mideast peace leading to gates of Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Yasser Arafat was waving his arms in the air emotionally as he addressed an admiring crowd.

"Unity is the road to Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, and whoever doesn't like it can drink from the sea of Gaza."

The Palestinian audience loved it — and so did Likud's campaign managers.

A clip of the Palestinian leader's speech opened the Likud's televised election ads this week. It was followed by another clip of Prime Minister Shimon Peres walking hand in hand with Arafat.

"Arafat will lead Peres to the division of Jerusalem. Peres will divide Jerusalem," the Likud ad warned.

As Israel marked the 29th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem during this week's Jerusalem Day festivities, both the Israelis and the Palestinians were setting the stage for the great debate on the permanent status of the city.

The Israelis, because of their May 29 national elections. The Palestinians, because of the final-status negotiations on the Jerusalem issue and other thorny questions confronting the two sides.

After a largely ceremonial first meeting last week, the talks are expected to begin in earnest immediately after the elections.

In Cairo this week, Jerusalem took center stage when Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for a summit designed to show support for the Palestinians in their final-status talks with the Israelis.

Last week, Hussein said the holy places in Jerusalem should stay outside any sovereignty.

But in Cairo on Sunday, pressed by Mubarak and Arafat, Hussein said eastern Jerusalem rightfully belonged to the Palestinians — though he added that Jerusalem should become a symbol of Arab-Israeli peace.

In their joint communiqué issued after the summit, the three leaders said any settlement of the Jerusalem question should respect "the legal and historical rights of the Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and Christians in the holy city."

Not a word about the Jews.

The next day, Hatem Id, one of the young leaders of the 1987 to 1993 intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the territories, told reporters that he was part of an unknown organization that had recently distributed leaflets in Jerusalem urging Palestinians to help "speed up the permanent settlement."

Security sources said this was not a direct call for the resumption of the intifada, but that it did amount to "buds of certain civil disobedience."

The Likud reacted immediately.

"That's the way it began in the territories," according to a Likud campaign ad. "Now it begins in Jerusalem.

"They know that Peres is weak and will give in to terrorism. Peres should be replaced before he breaks down. Peres will divide Jerusalem."

As a result of this barrage of accusations, Labor was drawn into discussing Jerusalem in the election campaign — against its better interests.

Labor would have liked to ignore the issue altogether, arguing that it had no intention of making any concessions on Jerusalem.

But too many others had a vested interest in keeping the Jerusalem issue aflame.

Foreign Minister Ehud Barak this week criticized the Labor campaign team for having given Likud the first chance to bring up the Jerusalem issue in its campaign ads.

After the Likud attack, Labor officials had little choice but to start explaining how much the Labor government had done for Jerusalem, and how much it would still do.

Actually, there is little difference between Likud and Labor regarding Jerusalem, either in their political platforms, or in their daily practice.

It was a Labor government that began the extensive development of Jewish Jerusalem in the eastern part of the capital shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War. The Likud followed suit when it took power.

Seven years ago, with the start of the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the Likud's Housing Ministry pushed for the development of new neighborhoods on a stretch between French Hill and Neve Ya'acov, populating the northeastern hills of the city.

Labor this year decided to develop another neighborhood, Har Homa, on the southern edge of the city, close to the Bethlehem road.

When the Madrid Conference in late 1991 set the current peace process in motion, it was a Likud government, under Yitzhak Shamir, that allowed Palestinian officials to operate out of Orient House in eastern Jerusalem.

The former hotel soon developed into the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Jerusalem — under the very eyes of a Likud government.

In more recent times, after the signing of the self-rule accords with the Palestinians, Likud officials did a turnaround, demanding that Orient House be closed down.

Labor officials, including Interior Security Minister Moshe Shahal also have threatened to close Orient House.

But nothing is done, because the tenants are, after all, Israel's partners in the peace process. And the future of that peace process leads to Jerusalem.