JERUSALEM – A group of hundreds of prominent Israeli rabbis this week urged a religious partner of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government to immediately bolt the Israeli leader’s coalition amid rampant media reports Jerusalem is up for negotiations.
The rabbis warned that if the Orthodox Shas party remains in Olmert’s government, they will urge Jews against supporting Shas. If the party bolts, Olmert’s coalition government could fall apart, precipitating new elections.
“We are seriously considering issuing a statement signed by the hundreds of rabbis of the organization declaring it is absolutely forbidden for any observant Jew to vote for a party that
lent its support to a government that negotiated the division of Jerusalem, a move that will place the entire population in Israel in mortal danger,” Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Lewin, director general of the Rabbinical Congress for Peace, told WND.
The Congress is a coalition of more than 350 Israeli rabbinic leaders and pulpit rabbis.
Olmert repeatedly has insisted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not dealing with the status of Jerusalem, while Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abba, and many Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, stated in recent weeks negotiations are covering all core issues, including Jerusalem.
The Israeli Shas party has stated it would bolt the prime minister’s coalition if it becomes clear the Israeli government is negotiating the ceding of any part of Jerusalem. Shas’ departure could collapse Olmert’s government.
Olmert must maintain a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats to continue ruling. He currently rules with a slight plurality. If Shas, with its 12 seats, bolts the government, Olmert would be forced to forge a new coalition or face new elections. Most analysts here believe if Shas does bolt, Olmert could only stay in power if he invites Arab parties to his government, a move that would be considered highly controversial.
Shas denies Jerusalem is being discussed during weekly Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which commenced after last November’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis summit.
“Nobody is talking about Jerusalem. The moment Jerusalem is being discussed, Shas will leave the government – period,” Shas Spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch told Israel National News.
A Rabbinical Congress for Peace statement issued after an emergency meeting yesterday countered: “Every novice journalist and anyone listening to the news in Israel knows that giving up large chunks of Jerusalem has been on the negotiating table for quite some time and is in its advanced stages. Only the representatives of Shas are burying their heads in the ground and pretend they know of nothing.”
“They are lying to themselves and deceiving their electorate. The Shas ministers know that Olmert and Abbas have agreed not to make public any agreement on Jerusalem until after the final signature in order to keep Shas in the government,” said the RCP statement.
The statement was signed by scores of prominent rabbinic leaders here.
Since the Annapolis summit, which aimed to create a Palestinian state before the end of the year, senior negotiating teams including Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia have been meeting weekly while Olmert and Abbas meet biweekly.
Unlike previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in which both sides attended with about a dozen advisors each, Livni’s and Quereai’s teams are small, usually consisting at most of five people each. Media leaks from the current negotiations have been rare. Some momentum is highly expected before a visit Bush has scheduled to Israel in May, his second trip since Annapolis.
Olmert’s government has hinted a number of times it will divide Jerusalem and reportedly has halted all Jewish construction permits for eastern sections of the city.
In December, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon said the country “must” give up sections of Jerusalem for a future Palestinian state, even conceding the Palestinians can rename Jerusalem “to whatever they want.”
“We must come today and say, friends, the Jewish neighborhoods, including Har Homa, will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Arab neighborhoods will be the Palestinian capital, which they will call Jerusalem or whatever they want,” said Ramon during an interview.
Positions held by Ramon, a ranking member of Olmert’s Kadima party, are largely considered to be reflective of Israeli government policy.
Olmert himself recently questioned whether it was “really necessary” to retain Arab-majority eastern sections of Jerusalem.
Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – during the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians have claimed eastern Jerusalem as a future capital; the area has large Arab neighborhoods, a significant Jewish population and sites holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
About 231,000 Arabs live in Jerusalem, mostly in eastern neighborhoods, and many reside in illegally constructed complexes. The city has an estimated total population of 724,000.
Olmert to blame for dividing Jerusalem?
Ramon listed population statistics as the reason Olmert’s government finds it necessary to split Jerusalem.
But WND broke the story that according to Jerusalem municipal employees, during 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert instructed city workers not to take action against hundreds of illicit Arab building projects throughout eastern sections of Jerusalem housing over 100,000 Arabs squatting in the city illegally.
The workers and some former employees claim Olmert even instructed city officials to delete files documenting illegal Arab construction of housing units in eastern Jerusalem.
Olmert was Jerusalem mayor from 1993 to 2003. As mayor, he made repeated public statements calling Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel. Jerusalem municipal employees and former workers, though, paint a starkly contrasting picture of the prime minister.
“He did nothing about rampant illegal Arab construction in Jerusalem while the government cracked down on illegal Jewish construction in the West Bank,” said one municipal employee who worked under Olmert. She spoke on condition of anonymity, because she still works for the municipality.
One former municipal worker during Olmert’s mayoral tenure told WND he was moved in 1999 to a new government posting after he tried to highlight the illegal Arab construction in Jerusalem. He also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his current job.
Aryeh King, chairman of the Jerusalem Forum, which promotes Jewish construction in Jerusalem, told WND an investigation by his group found Olmert’s city hall deleted files documenting hundreds of illegal Arab building projects throughout eastern sections of Jerusalem. He said he forwarded his findings to Israel’s state comptroller for investigation.
King also claims Olmert told senior municipal workers not to enforce a ban on illegal Arab buildings.
“Ehud Olmert gave the order not to deal with the problem and not to put Israeli security forces to the duty of taking down the illegal Arab complexes,” said King. “Senior municipal workers told me Olmert said not to bother with the illegal Arab homes, because eventually eastern Jerusalem would be given to the Palestinian Authority.”
King’s report alleges Jerusalem municipal officials erased the files, which detail over 300 cases of Arab construction in eastern Jerusalem deemed illegal starting from 1999. The illegal buildings reportedly were constructed without permits and are still standing. According to law, they must be demolished.
Local media reports investigating King’s charges alleged the files were erased by Ofir May, the head of Jerusalem’s Department of Building Permits, with the specific intention of allowing the statute of limitation on enforcing the demolition of the illegal construction to run out.
The Jerusalem municipality released a statement in response to the allegations claiming the threat of Arab violence kept it from bulldozing the illegal Arab homes.
“During the years of the intifada, the municipality had difficulty carrying out the necessary level of enforcement in the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem due to security constraints,” the statement read.
King said the hundreds of buildings allegedly detailed in the deleted municipal files house more than 20,000 illegal units.
“We’re talking about perhaps 100,000 or more Arabs in eastern Jerusalem living in illegal homes with the government doing nothing about it,” King said.
To interview Aaron Klein, contact M. Sliwa Public Relations by e-mail, or call 973-272-2861 or 212-202-4453.