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Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem since 1993, addressed a Middle East Briefing on February 17, 2000.

The Vatican-PA Accord and the Papal Visit

I was surprised and dismayed by the agreement recently signed between the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The agreement condemned Israel's hold over all of Jerusalem as "morally and legally unacceptable" and called for freedom of religion and free access to the city's holy sites. Particularly upsetting was the timing of the agreement, preceding an historic papal visit to Israel by only a few weeks. We had expected the pope's visit to Jerusalem to be a major breakthrough in the reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish people. Jews harbor many bad memories with the Church and had anticipated steps to help overcome these memories - not politically controversial statements emanating from the Vatican's secretariat. Those statements contradict the importance, significance, and centrality of Jerusalem in the life of every Israeli and every Jew. They have introduced an unfortunate political dimension to the visit.

Status of Jerusalem

It is hard to fathom a political situation in Israel that will bring forth a change of status in Jerusalem or any part of it.

The status of Jerusalem will not be determined by the Palestinians or the Vatican but by history. Jerusalem became the capital of the Jewish people not by virtue of an agreement but by having been named the capital by King David more than 3000 years ago. It has been the capital of the Jewish people ever since. No agreement, bargaining, pressure, or threat can alter this fundamental fact.

As the sovereign power in Jerusalem, Israel's role is to guarantee that the city remains friendly and hospitable to all believers of all faiths. While Jerusalem means everything to the Jewish people, it is also important for Christians and Muslims. I can assure that Israel will make every effort-at all times and under all circumstances-to safeguard Jerusalem's openness and accessibility. These are not just words; we have scrupulously adhered to this policy for the past thirty-three years and we take great pride in the manner in which we have done it.

Israel's record regarding religious freedom differs greatly from the PA's. Only a few weeks ago, the Palestinian security forces seized a White Russian Church in Jericho and handed it over to the Red Russians. The reasons were of an obviously political nature-to improve the PA's standing vis-à-vis Moscow. We don't ever let politics interfere in this way.

The Political Context

We are in the midst of a political process that will determine the status of Jerusalem. The key question here is the following: What will happen if Prime Minister Ehud Barak hands over parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians? While I am convinced that such a scenario is out of the question, let us assume the unthinkable and suppose he does cede parts of Jerusalem to the PA. In that case, his days as prime minister would be numbered, and for a very simple reason. Should Mr. Barak break his commitment not to divide Jerusalem and instead defy the most powerful and far-reaching consensus that exists among Israelis, he will lose the very basis of support he must have as prime minister. In fact, he will lose the moral authority to govern. Knowing Barak and his beliefs, however, I have no doubt that he will fight to protect the unity, integrity, and indivisibility of the city of Jerusalem.

Abu Dis and Israeli Red Lines

Most of the village of Abu Dis, cheek by jowl with Jerusalem, is in Palestinian control and part of it is in Israeli hands. Israel's main concern with Abu Dis concerns PA actions once it controls the whole of this territory. People tend to forget that Abu Dis-which only due to sheer coincidence is not part of Jerusalem-comes as close as 600 meters (650 yards) from the Temple Mount. Allowing the PA to build a parliament in such close proximity to Temple Mount signals to the Palestinians that they can build a command position there that will focus on sabotage activities within Jerusalem. It invites an attempt to separate the city's eastern part from its western part in order to bring about the political outcome that the PA always wanted: a foothold in Jerusalem. These circumstances would, almost inevitably, lead to a confrontation between Israel and the PA within four to five years.

To avoid such a scenario, Israel needs to define very specific red lines that will make clear the status of Jerusalem to the Palestinians (and others), dampening expectations and removing ambiguities. The sooner and the more actively Israel sets forth those red lines, the better. The PA's chairman, Yasir Arafat, will have little choice but to accept that he cannot obtain everything he wants. He can hardly declare war on Israel or the United States. The initial Palestinian reaction would be one of frustration, but eventually the PA would have to calm down, reconsider, and accept the fact that there is a limit to what they can get. It will be up to them to decide whether they will want to jeopardize all that they have achieved thus far, or whether they are willing to compromise.

Diaspora Jewry

When it comes to Jerusalem, a historical consensus exists that stretches from the current government to most political parties in Israel and to the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Jews worldwide. Jews living outside of Israel ought to be part of the decision-making process in matters pertinent to the status of Jerusalem. It has been the subject of all their prayers, dreams, and yearnings for 2000 years. As such, I do not think that any Jewish individual has the right to take away this dream from Jewish history and Jewish life.

Transfer of the American Embassy

President Clinton has repeatedly stated that moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem might jeopardize the peace process. I believe that the opposite is true, namely that refraining from moving the embassy would be detrimental to the peace process because it creates inflated and unrealistic expectations that a compromise in line with Palestinian expectations on Jerusalem will be achieved. Transferring the American embassy to Jerusalem is the single step that would best eliminate all ambiguities-and thus contribute to the peace process in the most meaningful way. As long as the Palestinians see that Washington resists moving the embassy, they will not compromise. Hence, the only way to force the Palestinians into a real and genuine compromise is to move the embassy to Jerusalem.

Summary account by Assaf Moghadam