Analyze This: Fudging the game of talking about Jerusalem

Olmert and Abbas disagree about whether they disagree.

The good news for Jerusalemites is that in the international on-line voting competition now under way to determine which cities will be included in a new "global edition" of the classic board game Monopoly, the Israeli capital is currently ranked sixth, just ahead of such truly cosmopolitan cities as Rome (7), Paris (8) and New York (10). The bad news is that it still trails Istanbul (1), Montreal (2), Cape Town (3) and… Riga (4). Yep, Riga - the capital of Latvia, in case you didn't know. Of course, the reason both Riga and Jerusalem (and presumably some of these other cities) even make the top 10 is because there are organized campaigns making an effort to get them there. The Jerusalem Global Monopoly campaign is being run primarily by the Israel Consulate in New York City. But also making an effort in this direction is One Jerusalem - the group set up seven years ago to promote maintaining Israeli sovereignty over every part of the city and to counter any deal with the Palestinians that would do otherwise. Yehiel Leiter, One Jerusalem's director-general (and a former chief-of-staff to Binyamin Netanyahu), told the BBC this week that his organization is supporting the Global Monopoly campaign because it "puts Jerusalem on the table. It has people not avoid Jerusalem because it's contested." Ironically, it's precisely because Jerusalem is so contested that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying so hard to keep Jerusalem off the table, at least for the opening stage of negotiation talks with the Palestinians, including Tuesday's scheduled meeting between the PM and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who insists that discussions on Jerusalem do begin in this initial phase. Not only do they disagree on this point; they seemingly disagree about whether they disagree. On Sunday night Olmert told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that "Jerusalem will be the last issue to be negotiated. It has been agreed, discussed and accepted between me and the president of the Palestinian Authority." On Monday though, Abbas was quoted by a Jordanian newspaper saying that talks on Jerusalem cannot be delayed any longer. At any rate, it's a tricky game that Olmert has to play, one that is clearly far more complicated to win - or even begin - than Monopoly. The biggest challenge right now is balancing the Palestinian demand that negotiations on Jerusalem get under way, and the PM's promise to key coalition partner Shas that the issue will be delayed until the final stage of the talks - at which point the Sephardi religious party is likely to bolt the government in order to avoid angering its right-leaning constituency. The trick for Olmert is to somehow find a way of keeping two players in one game when they don't even agree on the basic rules. One way of fudging this obstacle is to not keep score during the game - or at least insist that the score doesn't matter unless both sides agree at the game's finish that they were indeed playing for keeps. Along these lines, in her letter to Jerusalem City Council member Nir Barkat last week, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declared that "until there is an accord on every issue, there will be no accord on any issue, and the contents of the negotiations must not be disclosed." In other words, none of the positions agreed to during the negotiations will have any bearing unless Israel and the PA arrive at a complete final-status agreement that covers all outstanding issues. You might say it's like gambling with Monopoly money, and only deciding at the end of the night that it counted as real currency. But even that kind of playacting might not placate Shas, especially if the contents of the negotiations start leaking - as they are very likely to - and it includes concessions on Jerusalem. In the meantime, a senior Palestinian source told The Jerusalem Post last week that talks on the final-status political future of the city have in fact already begun, including in secret channels out of the media's glare. The Prime Minister's Office has denied this is the case - although it is also possible that this denial might not cover some kind of "unofficial" discussions exploring various theoretical options. When Livni responded in her letter to Barkat's request that she react to the Post's reports about secret negotiations on the future of the capital, she said that Israel had learned from past experience that conducting negotiations "under the floodlights" would not contribute to Israel's goals, and that "for this reason, and this reason only, I have neither related to reports about agreements seemingly reached during negotiations nor will I do so in the future... [but] you cannot conclude anything from my lack of response, and the absence of a denial is not any form of confirmation." No - but neither is it a denial. It is more like what was dubbed in the old Watergate days as "a non-denial denial." The goal of Monopoly, of course is to wipe out your opponent's cash savings by gaining control over as much - or preferably all - the property in one particular town (New Jersey's Atlantic City in the original game board). No wonder then that the One Jerusalem organization is so enthusiastic about getting Jerusalem its place on Global Monopoly, since its goal is maintaining an Israeli monopoly over the capital. But as the Palestinian official quoted by the Post said, "The Jerusalem issue is on the table - and under the table." Because it is always possible to fudge what exactly constitutes a "negotiation," the betting here is that the official discussions are likely not the only game in town when it comes to negotiating Jerusalem's future status.