Har Homa development – the last bastion of the Likud

It seems that last week's hotly contested Har Homa decision is motivated not only by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's need to establish a position before final-status peace talks on Jerusalem, but also to provide the prime minister and his party with something they feel has been lacking since their dream of keeping all of the West Bank faded: another cause.

While Labor has succeeded in turning the peace process into its new organizing principle, it has not been as easy for the Likud.

Netanyahu reminded Arab journalists last week that nobody would have believed that he would accept the Oslo Accords as the basis for peace, shake Yasser Arafat's hand, pull back troops from Hebron and release hard-core Palestinian prisoners. Indeed, the more Netanyahu has been hailed abroad and at home as a statesman who has favored pragmatism over ideology by striking a deal in Hebron, the more the faithful have winced wondering what is left of the old dream. Therefore, the coalition pressure on Har Homa has been fierce.

In a startling interview that former premier and Likud ideologue Yitzhak Shamir gave to Ma'ariv a week ago, he lashed out at his successor, Netanyahu. He said, "The fact is he's working against the principles of the Likud. He has no principles at all. I don't see any principles."

However, Likud members concede that as controlling the whole West Bank is no longer realistic, an undivided Jerusalem has become the new centerpiece. In an interview last week, Jerusalem's Mayor Ehud Olmert said: "Due to other concessions made to the Palestinians, de facto, the center of gravity of the Likud has moved to Jerusalem. This is one reason why Har Homa has become important." A few days earlier, Olmert thundered: "If there is no Har Homa, there is no Bibi."

Moshe Halberthal, who teaches political philosophy at the Hebrew University, said, "Jerusalem has become the Likud's last ideological bastion."

If Jerusalem is where the dream began for the Likud, for the Palestinians the city is the ultimate fulfillment of its territorial aspirations. Arafat has given so many speeches about how the Palestinians won't rest until the Palestinian flag is hoisted on the minarets of eastern Jerusalem. Set behind Arafat's desk has consistently been a picture of Jerusalem's al-Aksa Mosque.

Due to pullbacks as a result of the peace process, the picture has changed. The Palestinian Authority has gained control over all the cities of the West Bank (except 20 percent of Hebron) and with more territory to be ceded in the scheduled pullback next week and the partition of the West Bank considered a fait accompli, Netanyahu's version of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians includes ceding about half of the West Bank while retaining settlement blocs where most of the settlers live and the Jordan Valley. Yet, retaining half the territories is not a vision that Likud officials believe will inspire their voters.

But Jerusalem retains the magnetic quality. Unlike Shamir, who was willing to be unpopular in order to pursue an ideological course of building settlements to keep the West Bank, Netanyahu believes he can recast the ideology surrounding Jerusalem while winning broad public support. Therefore, Jerusalem is a convenient high ground for Netanyahu. Hence, last week Netanyahu was focusing on Har Homa. A week earlier he focused on building two roads around the Jerusalem area and news of the closing of Palestinian institutions in the city is being heard more and more.

It is one thing to make Jerusalem more central, but last September's violence suggests that unilateral actions in the city could exact a heavy price. Moreover, Israel agreed to negotiate the future of Jerusalem in Oslo, and the decision on Har Homa is being interpreted by the Palestinians and the international community as seeking to pre-empt final status talks.

Netanyahu ran his election campaign on both Jerusalem and bringing about peace. If not handled correctly, these two principles could be heading for collision with each other.

The challenge for Netanyahu will be to find the proper balance between how to safeguard Israeli control over Jerusalem while at the same time keeping the peace process on track and avoiding violence. Israelis have largely felt the two are reconcilable so long as its government acts wisely. It is Netanyahu's wisdom, namely how he handles this dual mission, that is bound to be repeatedly tested.