Har Homa spells out macho message

Patrick Cockburn

Jerusalem

Asked how Israel intended the message of Har Homa to be received by Palestinians, the senior American diplomat was succinct. He told a reporter from the daily Jerusalem Post: "Israel's message of Har Homa for Palestinians is: 'Screw you'."

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has a different explanation of why he decided to provoke a crisis by building the Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. In fact he has two explanations, though they are somewhat contradictory. The first is that the settlement is to house the rising population of the city. His second is that the motive for Har Homa is political, and by building there Israel is asserting its sovereignty in its capital.

"Nobody has been been able to solve the mystery of how Netanyahu's brain operates," writes Israeli columnist Yoel Marcus. "I am willing to bet that just three months ago 90 per cent of Israelis did not even know about the existence of Har Homa. Today, Netanyahu is telling us: 'If we cave in now everything is lost'." In one move, he argues, Mr Netanyahu has turned Israel into an international pariah and squandered the credit it won by withdrawing from Hebron in January.

Others point to a more serious consequence of the crisis. The Oslo accords of 1993 were intended to produce a stable balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians over six years so the two peoples could live together peacefully. The basis of the agreement was land for peace. Mr Netanyahu may ensure that at Har Homa and elsewhere on the West Bank Palestinians get less land, but by the same token Israelis will get less peace.

An alternative explanation for Mr Netanyahu's decision over Har Homa is that he was under intolerable pressure from his right wing. Bitter over his retreat in Hebron they forced him to build at Har Homa in the hope of sabotaging Oslo as a whole. The problem with this argument is that the right of the Likud party has nowhere else to go. They do not want an election and the alternative to the present government is a coalition with Labour which certainly would implement Oslo. In a letter last week, King Hussein of Jordan wrote that he was fed up with Mr Netanyahu's right wing being constantly used to explain why the Prime Minister had failed to meet his commitments.

A bizarre aspect of the Har Homa decision - since it was billed by the government as an issue which united Israelis - is that a majority are against building now. A poll of Israeli Jews by Gallup published in the daily Ma'ariv yesterday shows that 48 per cent oppose starting construction at Har Homa now and 40 per cent are in favour - although a majority believe in the right of Israel to build there. Asked if they supported the decision to go ahead even at the price of international isolation and a conflict with the Palestinians, 28 per cent wanted to build and 57 per cent did not.

These are not pleasing figures for Mr Netanyahu. They underline two important political facts. There is limited appetite in Israel for the military and political effort necessary if Israel tries to continue to occupy large areas of the West Bank. Second, if Mr Netanyahu cannot deliver some sort of peace he can forget about being reelected in three years time.

Why did Mr Netanyahu do it? The most obvious explanation is probably the best. He wanted to create a fact on the map in East Jerusalem. Dr Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political scientist, says: "The battle for Jerusalem is only just beginning. They felt they could not wait."

But the American diplomat is also probably right. Before his election last May, Mr Netanyahu said the way to deal with Arabs was to be tough with them. Their demands were proportionate to what they thought they could get. By demolishing a home for disabled Palestinian children in the Old City of Jerusalem and then opening a tunnel into the Muslim quarter last year Mr Netanyahu tried to prove his point.

The result was disaster. In three days' fighting in Gaza and the West Bank 61 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed. Few exercises in political machismo have proved so counter-effective. Yet six months later Mr Netanyahu has once again picked an issue, this time at Har Homa, which unites Palestinians, divides Israelis and ensures his own isolation in the world.

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