JERUSALEM – After months of denials, the status of Jerusalem is on the table in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office has confirmed to The Jewish Press that a mechanism has been created to deal with the issue of the holy city in U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state by the end of the year.
“Of all the final status core issues, the issue of Jerusalem is probably the most difficult, and unlike some of the other issues, we have yet to start negotiating the future of Jerusalem. Therefore, in order to not let the process fall victim to its weakest link, we have the establishment of an agreed-upon mechanism that would continue to deal with Jerusalem. That mechanism was created in such a way that it would address the concern of both sides,” said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev.
Regev would not explain in detail the mechanism that has been created to discuss Jerusalem.
Regev’s comments came amid Israeli news reports last week that Olmert had presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with a plan for international parties to contribute proposals for negotiating the status of Jerusalem. Olmert and Abbas met for a round of advanced talks last week.
According to Olmert’s purported proposal, a five-year timetable will be set out for completing a settlement on Jerusalem.
Regev would neither confirm nor deny the reports, which state that Olmert’s plan is for Jerusalem talks to be held under an international umbrella, where governments and other interested parties, including the Vatican, will be able to contribute their views.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the proposed Jerusalem negotiations would be held directly between Israel and the Palestinians, with international parties providing suggestions only.
Haaretz reported that Olmert was planning to include in the negotiations the members of the Mideast Quartet – the UN, U.S., EU and Russia – as well as Jordan, Egypt, the Vatican and possibly the king of Morocco.
Both senior Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic sources confirmed to The Jewish Press that both sides are already negotiating Jerusalem, with Palestinian officials claiming the talks are in advance stages.
According to Palestinian sources directly involved in the negotiations, the Haaretz report on Olmert’s “international proposal” is specific to a U.S. plan – first reported by this newspaper’s Quick Takes column last week – that has been floated amongst the parties to deal with dividing Jerusalem in five years.
Informed sources said officials from the State Department this year presented both sides with several proposals for consideration regarding the future status of Jerusalem. It was unclear whether the U.S. proposals were accepted.
One U.S. plan for Jerusalem featured several timed phases, and among other things called for Israel eventually to consider forfeiting parts of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
According to the first stage of the U.S. proposal, Israel would initially give the PA some municipal and security sovereignty over key Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. The PA would be allowed to open some official institutions in Jerusalem, elect a mayor for the Palestinian side of the city and deploy some kind of basic security force to maintain law and order. The specifics of the force were not detailed in the plan.
The initial stage also calls for the PA to operate Jerusalem municipal institutions, such as offices to oversee trash collection and road maintenance.
After five years, if both sides keep specific commitments called for in a larger principal agreement, according to the U.S. plan, the PA would be given full sovereignty over agreed-upon eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, and discussions would be held regarding an arrangement for the Temple Mount.
The plan doesn’t specify which parts of the Temple Mount could be forfeited to the Palestinians or whether an international force may be involved.
The PA also could deploy official security forces in Jerusalem separate from a non-defined basic force after the five-year period, and could also open major governmental institutions, such as a president’s office and offices for finance and foreign ministries.
The U.S. plan leaves Israel and the PA to negotiate which Jerusalem neighborhoods would become Palestinian.
Standing alongside Abbas at a press conference last week, Olmert announced in English that “We have to complete the Annapolis process this year – this year.”
The Israeli leader was referring to talks begun at last November’s U.S.-backed Annapolis conference. The Annapolis talks pushed for an agenda involving the creation of a Palestinian state – at least on paper – before President Bush leaves office in January.
According to top diplomatic sources, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited the region last week, pressed Israel to sign a document by the end of the year that would include Jerusalem by offering the Palestinians a state in Israel’s capital city as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli team would rather conclude an agreement on paper by the end of the year that would give the Palestinians a state in the West Bank, Gaza and some Israeli territory, leaving conclusions on Jerusalem for a later date, the informed diplomatic sources said.
The sources said the Palestinian team has been pushing to conclude a deal by January on all core issues, including Jerusalem, and has been petitioning the U.S. to pressure Israel into signing an agreement on paper that offers the Palestinians eastern Jerusalem.
Rice, the sources said, has asked Israeli leaders to bend to what the U.S. refers to as a “compromise position,” concluding an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of the year that guarantees sections of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Israel would not be required to withdraw from Jerusalem for a period of one to five years.