Image: Ehud Olmert
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
updated 10/8/2007 3:06:41 PM ET 2007-10-08T19:06:41

Senior Israeli officials expressed support Monday for the transfer of Arab parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian control, offering a concession on one of the most contentious issues in the conflict. The offer appeared to fall short of Palestinian calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from key areas of the holy city.

The officials spoke as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to begin talks in Jerusalem to work out a joint document they hope to issue at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference next month. The meetings were closed.

Ahead of the talks, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said he proposed in recent talks with Palestinian officials to turn over areas of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state.

The proposal by Ramon, who is a confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, marked a potentially significant Israeli concession. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and claims all of the city as its undivided capital.

But the Israeli transfer would not include the Old City and surrounding neighborhoods, Ramon said. These are the key disputed areas which include the holiest site for Jews, the Temple Mount, and the third holiest site in Islam, the Al Aqsa mosque compound.

'Special administration' in Old City?
Ramon was not clear about what areas would be transferred. But his opposition to relinquishing control of the Old City and the holy sites — known as the “holy basin” — falls short of Palestinian claims to all areas captured in 1967.

“I agree that all the Palestinian neighborhoods except the Arab neighborhoods in the holy basin ... would be transferred,” Ramon told Army Radio. Instead, he suggested a “special administration” to oversee the holy basin. He did not elaborate, but past talks have raised the idea of turning oversight to an international body.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat refused to comment on Ramon’s proposal, but said there have been no agreements on Jerusalem in preliminary talks so far.

“We haven’t started negotiations. It’s premature to say anything about these issues,” he said.

Olmert’s office also tried to distance itself from Ramon, saying his comments reflected his own opinion and not that of the prime minister.

But Olmert said he strongly backed efforts for a peace deal.

Olmert seeks an 'realistic' future of peace
In his speech at the opening of parliament’s winter session, Olmert said Israel would have to give up some of its deepest desires — an apparent reference to vacating Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians too “will have to deal with the need to concede part of their dreams in order to build with us a realistic, if not ideal, if not perfect” future of peace and security, he added.

Ramon said he expected Olmert and his main coalition partners would support a deal on Jerusalem. Media reports say Olmert sent Ramon unofficially but that any deal he works out could be presented officially to the government for approval.

In Monday’s negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian working teams were to begin work on a document outlining a joint vision for peace, which they hope to present at the peace conference set for late November in Annapolis, Md.

After a series of one-on-one meetings in recent months, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appointed negotiating teams to prepare for the conference.

Official warns of Hamas involvement
Ramon said the talks leading up to the conference are integral for future Israeli-Palestinian relations. If the negotiations do not bear fruit, it will strengthen the Hamas militant group in its power struggle with Abbas, he warned. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, while Abbas controls the West Bank.

“If we miss this opportunity, and it becomes clear that we can’t reach an agreement even with leaders like Abbas or Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad, this means we’ll have to deal with Hamas,” Ramon told Army Radio.

Cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu, said the party supports Ramon’s offer on Jerusalem as long as the Palestinians agree to let Israel maintain control of Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinians want a future state to include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

“Within this framework, we are willing to exchange refugee camps that are in the Jerusalem municipal boundaries,” Lieberman told Israel Radio.

Lieberman holds a popular Israeli view that the Jewish state must give up the outlying areas of Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of Palestinians live, in order to preserve a Jewish majority in the city.

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