Israel is contemplating turning parts of Jerusalem over to Palestinian control, says a top Israeli minister, possibly signaling a major policy change for the government of Ariel Sharon, which was elected on the platform of Jerusalem being the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish State.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a close political ally of Sharon, told the Jerusalem Post in an interview yesterday that he is willing to cede Israeli control over at least six Arab neighborhoods that lie on the periphery of Jerusalem.

He named Isawiya – adjacent to the city’s French Hill neighborhood – the nearby Shuafat refugee camp, Anata, the northern village of Kfar Akab, and Sur Bahir and Umm Tuba, on the city’s southeastern rim.

“Jerusalem is dear to me, but one must not lose sight of proportions over peripheral areas we do not need,” Olmert said.

Olmert’s policy statements are often coordinated with Sharon to “test the waters” of potential future Israeli government initiatives. Olmert was the first to go public with Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, joked that “Olmert is in good shape, he jogs. He is always ahead of us.”

Olmert said ceding control of the six East Jerusalem neighborhoods to the Palestinians is needed to maintain a Jewish majority in the Holy City. Currently, one-third of all Jerusalem residents are Arab. The Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives would remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future plan, Olmert stressed.

It is not clear whether Olmert envisioned handing parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan, or during negotiations with the Palestinian leadership.

An official in Sharon’s office said Olmert’s comments are meant to gauge Israeli and international reaction, and do not signal a change in policy.

The comments may also be an attempt by Sharon to change the make-up of his coalition by fomenting further clashes with the right-wing National Union Party, which has been debating whether to leave the government over Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.

National Union’s departure would allow Sharon to create a unity government with the dovish Labor party, which is more supportive of the disengagement plan.

Olmert’s statements are a major reversal for the previously hard-line politician, who served as Jerusalem’s mayor for 10 years. He was one of the harshest critics of Ehud Barak’s proposals to transfer Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority during the Camp David peace summit in 2000.

“No matter what platform they are elected on, Israeli leaders eventually discover the lure of unilateral concessions,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. “Hope springs eternal that concessions bring about great benefits. In fact, every time tried during these last 12 years, it has brought disaster.”

Jerusalem was first divided into eastern and western sections when Jordan invaded and occupied East Jerusalem and the Old City in 1947, expelling all Jewish inhabitants. Israel built its capital in the western part of the city. East Jerusalem remained under Jordanian control until Israel captured it, along with the Old City, in 1967 after Jordan’s King Hussein ignored Israeli pleas for his country to stay out of the Six Day War.

During the 19 years of Arab sovereignty, the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 synagogues – some centuries old – were destroyed and slum dwellings were built abutting the Western Wall. Jews were not allowed to visit their holy places and Israeli Christians were subjected to many restrictions, with only limited numbers allowed to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter.

A major financial contributor to Olmert’s campaigns who asked that her name be withheld told WND, “I have known and supported that man [Olmert] for years, and am shocked and disgusted by all of this. We’ve seen what the Palestinians do with the land they are given – they use it to attack Israel. Jews have waited 2,000 years to return to our Holy City, and we’ve turned it into the most beautiful place on earth. Now Olmert wants to just give it up? What a sell-out.”

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.