Olmert Abbas 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
When Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman ascended to the highest point in the City of David complex overlooking the Arab neighborhood of Silwan on Wednesday, he sounded a lot like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Lieberman spoke about why some Jerusalem neighborhoods should remain part of Israel while others should not. The neighborhoods he spoke about exchanging were the same ones that Olmert had cited on the Knesset floor two days earlier.
At a special Knesset ceremony Monday marking the sixth anniversary of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassination, Olmert said Ze'evi was responsible for drawing up the present city map of Jerusalem, which the Knesset approved on July 27, 1967.
"It is thanks to that decision that we now have wonderful and vibrant neighborhoods such as Ramot, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Givat Hamivtar, Pisgat Ze'ev, Armon Hanatziv, Har Homa and Gilo, not to mention the Jewish Quarter in the Old City," he said. "Was it necessary to also add the Shuafat refugee camp, Sawakra, Walaje and other villages and define them as part of Jerusalem? On that, I must confess, I am not convinced."
That speech was the first direct sign from Olmert since he began negotiations ahead of the Annapolis summit that it could begin a process leading to the relinquishing control of areas within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.
Many in the Knesset questioned Olmert's timing in making such a significant statement the day after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz announced that he was opening up a third criminal investigation against him. They noted that Olmert made a point of not saying a word about Jerusalem when he spoke at the culmination of a four-hour forum on the capital's future during a September 20 Kadima council meeting.
People who have known Olmert for many years said they saw the Knesset speech as a defiant challenge to anyone who doubted that a prime minister with three investigations hanging over him could take serious diplomatic steps. They said the subtext in the speech was that not only could he function as prime minister, he could even divide Jerusalem.
OTHERS IN the Knesset corridors suggested that Olmert was not addressing his doubters but his investigators. In that regard, he might have taken a page from the book of Lieberman, who is an expert at steps mocking the long police investigation against him.
The bond between Olmert and Lieberman is not just one of a politician suffering from an eight-year investigation and another from eight investigations that have recently crept up at various levels. It's also a deep political and diplomatic bond.
Many have written that Vice Premier Haim Ramon's calls for concessions in Jerusalem were a trial balloon for Olmert, the same way Olmert served that function for former prime minister Ariel Sharon ahead of disengagement from Gaza. But the pullout Olmert advocated ahead of the withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements was much more substantial than what Sharon actually carried out.
Olmert's surprising call at the time to withdraw from much of the West Bank softened the blow when Sharon announced that he would do less. So if you want to know what Olmert might do with Jerusalem, don't listen to Ramon and his calls for giving up holy sites in the Old City, listen to the more moderate things that Lieberman is saying.
IF OLMERT says in Annapolis that he is willing to relinquish Arab neighborhoods, he might not face a public outcry, because he would not be adopting the extreme position of Ramon but the outlook of Lieberman, who compares leftists to Hellenists.
Limiting the division of Jerusalem to the Lieberman level would also allow Olmert to keep his coalition intact, perhaps losing Shas but perhaps not. If that's what Olmert ultimately decides to do, this week will be remembered as one in which two steps were taken toward Jerusalem's division - one by Olmert at the Knesset and another by Lieberman at the City of David.
This despite the perception at the beginning of the week that the addition of another criminal probe would paralyze the prime minister and prevent him from advancing the diplomatic process, especially in Jerusalem.
Olmert's advocates at the Knesset said he took one major step away from dividing the city this week when he appointed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and not Ramon to head the country's negotiating team at Annapolis. They said the move showed that Olmert understands he has to face realities inside Kadima and the coalition as a whole.
Livni has made an effort in recent months to present position herself politically on Olmert's right. But she herself has not made any promises lately about Jerusalem remaining undivided. In her speech at the Kadima council's forum on the capital - after others took turns pledging loyalty to an undivided city - Livni limited herself to the non-committal statement that "the agreement we reach must express that Jerusalem is the national and Jewish home of the State of Israel."
NEVERTHELESS, JERUSALEM city council opposition leader Nir Barkat, who instigated the outcry in Kadima against Ramon's plans for the capital, praised Olmert's decision to appoint Livni. He took credit for Ramon's recent reduction in political power, calling Livni's appointment the first accomplishment of the coalition of MKs and public figures he is forming against dividing Jerusalem.
The next step in Barkat's campaign is a petition Likud MK Yisrael Katz circulated in the Knesset this week in an effort to get 61 signatures of MKs supporting a united Jerusalem. Barkat is also asking the public to sign a petition to that effect on his jer.org.il Web site.
Barkat's campaign will distribute thousands of stickers with the slogan "Jerusalem should be strengthened, not divided."
The goal is to create enough of a public push to do what the police investigation did not: force Olmert to remove Jerusalem from the agenda at Annapolis.