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Jerusalem holds key to peace in Mideast

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When Yasser Arafat came to The New York Times for a discussion the other day, he spoke respectfully of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "He is my partner," Arafat said. "He's a nice man."

But then he was asked whether he had had any advance warning of Netanyahu's recent decision to build thousands of homes for Jews on a site in East Jerusalem. "I'm sorry to say, no," Arafat replied.When Yitzhak Rabin and Shi-mon Peres were in office, he said, he had a hotline to them - and back channels for communication. Those links were gone.

Arafat's comments, mildly phrased though they were, pointed to a real danger. For whatever political reasons, Netanyahu ignored a basic requirement of the peace process: that Israel and the Palestinians consult before acting on any sensitive issue, avoiding surprises.

When the two men reached agreement in January on Hebron, it seemed that Netanyahu had turned a corner in his relationship with the Palestinian leader. There was widespread talk of trust and partnership.

That notion was shattered by Netanyahu's sudden decision to proceed with a huge Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. It was the opposite of mutuality and consultation: an attempt to present the Palestinians and the world with a fait accompli on the most sensitive of issues in the peace process, Jerusalem.

The Netanyahu government's representative at the United Nations, Gad Yaacobi, made an extraordinarily obtuse statement. He criticized the Palestinians for taking the settlement issue to the United Nations, saying that was "inconsistent with their commitment to settle all issues through negotiation." That after Israel had sprung this decision without notice, much less negotiation.

The settlement plan is especially menacing because of its physical implications. It would cut much of East Jerusalem and its nearly 200,000 Palestinian residents off from the West Bank. It would effectively foreclose the Palestinian claim to part of Jerusalem: a claim that is supposed to be the subject of negotiation in final-status talks beginning later this month.

If Netanyahu understood what he was doing, then the logical conclusion to be drawn is that he does not after all want an Israeli-Palestinian peace. For unless Israel accepts some form of official Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, there can be no peace.

That is a strong statement, but I do not think anyone familiar with Palestinian feelings will question it. Just as history has made Jerusalem a powerful symbol for Jews, so is it an essential part of the Palestinian longing for a homeland.

If Arafat agreed to a final peace that excluded Palestinians from a place in Jerusalem, I think that peace would not survive. Arafat's policy of nonviolence and compromise with Israel would be in the greatest jeopardy. So would his own leadership.

All that is so plain that one wonders what the Israeli prime minister can be thinking. I find it hard to believe that Netanyahu would knowingly jeopardize the great prize of peace with Israel's most intimate neighbors.

New York Times News Service