As Israel heads toward national elections next week, Prime Minis
ter Benjamin Netanyahu trails Labor party leader Ehud Barak in the opinion polls. Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign has grown increasingly disorganized. He has pleaded with former Likud Party loyalists to come back, shifted themes in mid-course and, reportedly, even conceded defeat to close associates. In a final gambit, the government has played the Jerusalem card, hoping that an uproar would strengthen Mr. Netanyahu’s hand. To their credit, the Palestinians have not taken the bait.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians say that East Jerusalem, seized by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war, is their natural capital. Claims to the city transcend mere politics. Since Jerusalem is home to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, a dispute over control or access would reverberate far beyond the Middle East.

Earlier this month, Israel’s government ordered the closure of Palestine Liberation Organization offices in East Jerusa
lem. It argued that the offices were run by the Palestinian Authority, not the PLO, and were therefore a violation of the Oslo accords. Israel’s High Court stayed the order until after the May 17 election. The decision averts violence that security officials anticipated upon enforcement of the order and denies the government a controversy on the eve of the polls. PLO offi
cials have reacted cautiously: It was left to Israeli peace activists to challenge the closure order.

U.S. legislators might want to study the PLO’s measured response. Although the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Congress passed legislation in 1995 that authorized moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The president was given a waiver that allowed him to delay the move; this week, members of Congress informed Mr. Clinton that they are ready to close the loophole. That would insert the U.S. directly into Israel’s domestic politics and ruin whatever hope the country has of playing intermediary in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Clinton said that he will decide the issue after the election. Hopefully, Congress will see that Jerusalem is a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to decide on their own, and not force a choice on the president.

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