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World - Middle East

Israel, PLO welcome delay in office-closings order

orient house
Palestinians celebrate the Israeli high court's decision to delay the closure of Orient House offices

CNN's Jerrold Kessel talks to both sides in the office-closings dispute
Windows Media 28K 80K

Israeli elections


But controversy simmers

May 11, 1999
Web posted at: 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT)

In this story:

Jerusalem's future at heart of dispute

Analysts, Netanyahu ally see issue as election ploy


JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Both the Israeli government and Palestinian officials welcomed a Tuesday court decision postponing a possible confrontation over the closing of PLO offices in Jerusalem, but questions remained about the controversy's timing and its impact on Monday's elections.

Israel's Supreme Court stopped the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from closing part of the Palestinian headquarters and ordered the two sides to explain within seven days, or by May 18, why they failed to achieve a compromise.

The decision means the government cannot act on the closure order before Israelis go to the polls for the parliamentary elections and the first round of a bitterly contested race for prime minister.

Opponents of Netanyahu had charged that his decision to close three offices at Orient House, the PLO headquarters, was a political ploy to show his toughness in dealing with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said Tuesday he welcomed the court decision -- and blamed the Palestinians for provoking him at election time.

"It's clear to me that the Palestinians are using the timing of the elections to prevent us from exerting our sovereignty on part of Jerusalem," he told Israel army radio.

Faisal Husseini, the PLO's senior official in Jerusalem, also praised the court action, saying it "lowers the specter of confrontation which had been imminent."

"To implement such a decision by force would have led to bloodshed, so any decision to delay this bloodshed and confrontation is good," Husseini said.

Fireworks went off at Orient House when news of the decision reached the compound.

Jerusalem's future at heart of dispute

Netanyahu issued the closure order on Monday, contending that the Palestine Liberation Organization offices were carrying out activities on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in violation of peace accords.

While the Palestinian Authority oversees parts of the West Bank and Gaza under peace deals reached since 1993, it has no official standing in east Jerusalem. However, the Palestinians consider the Orient House compound a symbol of their aspirations to establish a capital there.

The PLO, which continues to push for a Palestinian state but has no governmental authority, denied doing anything prohibited by the accords.

Both Palestinian leaders and Israeli security officials warned that a police raid of the PLO headquarters could trigger Palestinian riots.

Netanyahu, who is trailing opposition leader Ehud Barak in the polls, has tried with little success to turn the future of disputed Jerusalem into a major campaign issue.

Peace activists cited that when they asked the court to block the closure of the offices until after the elections, saying Netanyahu's decision smacked of electioneering.

Ally, analysts dismiss move as election ploy

The move to close the offices not only angered Palestinians and Netanyahu's critics, but also drew a sharp response from a member of Netanyahu's own Likud party, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

"I recommended to the prime minister that these orders not be implemented before the election," he told Israel Radio.

He said the move would be widely viewed in Israel as an election ploy and exacerbate divisions between left and right.

That view was shared by political analysts.

"The public is jaded," David Makovsky, diplomatic correspondent for the daily Haaretz told CNN's Jerrold Kessel. "They think that on the eve of the elections (Netanyahu) is doing things just to capture headlines."

"If his team is not on board, how is the country going to be on board?" Makovsky asked.

The United States also had tried to persuade Netanyahu and the Israeli government to avoid provoking a crisis over Orient House.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.

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