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JERUSALEM – Today’s Israeli elections will determine whether Jerusalem remains the undivided capital of the Jewish state or is given to the Palestinians in the near future, former Prime Minister and top leadership candidate Benjamin Netanyahu said during a campaign visit to the Western Wall.
“Without a strong Likud, we will not have sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu told reporters at the holy site yesterday. “Only a strong Likud can maintain Jerusalem. Kadima and the Left will divide Jerusalem and once you start dividing, you never know where it’s going to end. There is no way to safeguard Jerusalem without the nationalist camp and there is no nationalist camp without the Likud.”
Netanyahu heads the Likud Party, which according to Israeli polls is expected to come in third place at today’s ballots, although some here contend there could be an election-day surprise.
There are 120 seats in the Knesset. The leader of the party that wins the most seats becomes prime minister and forms a governing coalition.
Opinion polls have been predicting a narrow victory for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party, now headed by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following Sharon’s stroke in January.
But analysts warned the large number of undecided voters, expected low voter turn out and the largely unpolled younger voters could sway elections in Likud’s favor. As of this morning, voter turn out was at the lowest in Israeli history.
If Kadima wins, the party is expected to push ahead with its platform of withdrawing Jewish communities from most of the West Bank.
Also just days before the elections, the Kadima party revealed it would divide Jerusalem and allow a Palestinian state to be established in parts of Israel’s “eternal capital.”
“The Old City, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the City of David, Sheikh Jarra will remain in our hands, but [regarding] Kafr Akeb, Abu-Ram, Shuafat, Hizma, Abu-Zaim, Abu-Tur, Abu Dis, in the future, when the Palestinian state is established, they will become its capital,” said Otniel Schneller, a Kadima member who represented the party at an official debate last week on dividing Jerusalem.
The revelation followed months of denials by top Kadima officials that the party would advocate withdrawing from Jerusalem.
The neighborhoods Schneller listed are located on Jerusalem’s periphery, near the city’s border with the West Bank.
Schneller said Kadima supports “separation between us and the Palestinians who don’t live in the heart of Jerusalem,” claiming there would be “no concessions” on sites that are sacred to Jews.
Several Kadima officials and leaders associated with Sharon previously made statements about dividing Jerusalem that immediately were denied by the party.
In December, Sharon’s senior campaign pollster Kalman Gayer said in an interview with Newsweek the Israeli prime minister would give up parts of Jerusalem in a peace agreement. Immediately following the publication of Gayer’s remarks, Sharon appeared on state-run Israeli television and denied his vision for a Palestinian state includes Jerusalem.
Olmert, who served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993-2003, said in a June 2004 interview with the Jerusalem Post that Israel is contemplating turning parts of Jerusalem over to Palestinian control.
“Jerusalem is dear to me, but one must not lose sight of proportions over peripheral areas we do not need,” said Olmert, who served as deputy prime minister at the time. He claimed ceding control of eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods to the Palestinians is “needed to maintain a Jewish majority in the Holy City.”
Government officials immediately denied Olmert’s statements implied a Jerusalem withdrawal.
Kadima’s claims last week of “only” withdrawing from peripheral sections of Jerusalem worry many here. The Israeli government has denied previous withdrawal plans only to carry them out later, followed by announcements of more withdrawals in larger magnitudes from areas it pledged not to vacate.
Olmert was the first Sharon deputy to go public with Israel’s plan to evacuate its Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank communities. That plan was at first denied but later announced by Sharon. Israel withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank towns this past August, claiming there would be no further West Bank withdrawals.
Following the Gaza withdrawal, Olmert made statements about withdrawing from large sections of the West Bank. His statements immediately were denied by Sharon. Olmert in February announced if his Kadima party wins upcoming elections his administration will seek to “change Israel’s borders” by withdrawing from the vast majority of the West Bank.
Israel’s left-wing Labor and Meretz parties have in the past discussed dividing Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 offered the Palestinians a state in the West Bank, Gaza and eastern sections of Jerusalem. Barak’s proposal was rejected by the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Senior Likud member Yuval Stenitz yesterday blasted Kadima, saying party candidates who had expressed readiness to negotiate handing over eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians were opening up a “Pandora ‘s Box” that would lead to “Hamas taking over the Temple Mount.”
“Without the Likud, Jerusalem is in danger, and without Jerusalem there is no state of Israel,” Steinitz said.
Jerusalem first was divided into eastern and western sections when Jordan invaded and occupied Jerusalem and the Old City in 1947, expelling all Jewish inhabitants. Israel built its capital in the western part of the city, while the eastern quarters remained under Jordanian control until Israel captured it, along with the Old City, in 1967 after Jordan’s King Hussein ignored Israeli pleas for his country to stay out of the Six Day War.
During the 19 years of Arab sovereignty, the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 synagogues – some centuries old – were destroyed and slum dwellings were built abutting the Western Wall. Jews were not allowed to visit their holy places and Israeli Christians were subjected to many restrictions, with only limited numbers allowed to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter.