JERUSALEM – Current behind-the-scenes Israeli-Palestinian talks include negotiations aimed at dividing Jerusalem, according to a senior Palestinian negotiator involved in the negotiations.
“Since [last November’s U.S.-sponsored] Annapolis [summit], our regular meetings have been dealing with all the core issues, yes, of course including Jerusalem,” said the Palestinian negotiator, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
The official said he was talking off-the-record for fear of contradicting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has repeatedly insisted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not dealing with the status of Jerusalem.
The Israeli Shas party, an important coalition partner in Olmert’s government, has stated it would bolt the prime minister’s coalition if it becomes clear the Israeli government is negotiating the ceding any part of Jerusalem. Shas’ departure could collapse Olmert’s government.
“Nobody is talking about Jerusalem. The moment Jerusalem is being discussed Shas will leave the government – period,” Shas Spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch told Israel National News.
Olmert must maintain a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats to continue ruling. He currently rules with a slight plurality. If Shas, with its 12 seats, bolts the government, Olmert would be forced to forge a new coalition or face new elections. Most analysts here believe if Shas does bolt, Olmert could only stay in power if he invites Arab parties to his government, a move that would be considered highly controversial.
Contradicting Olmert’s repeated denials Jerusalem is being negotiated, the senior Palestinian negotiator as well as diplomatic sources in Jerusalem and Ramallah told WND current negotiations are aiming to forge a Palestinian state in eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
“The negotiations are going slow but they continue and are substantive,” said the Palestinian negotiator. “We are not yet at the point where we are taking out maps and talking about this street or that street but Jerusalem is being dealt with now in almost entirely in general terms, with an agreement that some Arab neighborhoods will become Palestinian.”
Continued the negotiator: “For Israeli political reasons, there seems to be a move to wait until the end of negotiations to discuss specifics of Jerusalem. Meanwhile we are watching closely any attempts to create facts on the ground such as illegal Israeli construction.”
Israeli construction in Jerusalem is not illegal if it’s approved by the government.
Current negotiations follow the Annapolis summit, at which Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to create a Palestinian state before President Bush leaves office at the end of the year.
Since Annapolis, senior negotiating teams including Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia have been meeting weekly while Olmert and Abbas meet biweekly.
Unlike previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in which both sides attended with about a dozen advisors each, Livni’s and Quereai’s teams are small, usually consisting at most of five people each. Media leaks from the current negotiations have been rare. Some momentum is highly expected before a visit Bush has scheduled to Israel in May, his second trip since Annapolis.
Olmert’s government has hinted multiple times it will divide Jerusalem.
In December,Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a top Olmert deputy, said Israel “must” give up sections of Jerusalem for a future Palestinian state, even conceding the Palestinians can rename Jerusalem “to whatever they want.”
“We must come today and say, friends, the Jewish neighborhoods, including Har Homa, will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Arab neighborhoods will be the Palestinian capital, which they will call Jerusalem or whatever they want,” said Ramon during an interview.
Positions held by Ramon, a ranking member of Olmert’s Kadima party, are largely considered to be reflective of Israeli government policy
Olmert himself recently questions whether it was “really necessary” to retain Arab-majority eastern sections of Jerusalem.
Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – during the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians have claimed eastern Jerusalem as a future capital; the area has large Arab neighborhoods, a significant Jewish population and sites holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
About 231,000 Arabs live in Jerusalem, mostly in eastern neighborhoods and many living in illegally constructed complexes. The city has an estimated total population of 724,000.
Olmert to blame for dividing Jerusalem?
Ramon listed population statistics as the reason Olmert’s government finds it necessary to split Jerusalem.
But WND broke the story that according to Jerusalem municipal employees, during 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert instructed city workers not to take action against hundreds of illicit Arab building projects throughout eastern sections of Jerusalem housing over 100,000 Arabs squatting in the city illegally.
The workers and some former employees claim Olmert even instructed city officials to delete files documenting illegal Arab construction of housing units in eastern Jerusalem.
Olmert was Jerusalem mayor from 1993 to 2003. As mayor he made repeated public statements calling Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel. Jerusalem municipal employees and former workers, though, paint a starkly contrasting picture of the prime minister.
“He did nothing about rampant illegal Arab construction in Jerusalem while the government cracked down on illegal Jewish construction in the West Bank,” said one municipal employee who worked under Olmert. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she still works for the municipality.
One former municipal worker during Olmert’s mayoral tenure told WND he was moved in 1999 to a new government posting after he tried to highlight the illegal Arab construction in Jerusalem. He also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his current job.
Aryeh King, chairman of the Jerusalem Forum, which promotes Jewish construction in Jerusalem, told WND an investigation by his group found Olmert’s city hall deleted files documenting hundreds of illegal Arab building projects throughout eastern sections of Jerusalem. He said he forwarded his findings to Israel’s state comptroller for investigation.
King also claims Olmert told senior municipal workers not to enforce a ban on illegal Arab buildings.
“Ehud Olmert gave the order not to deal with the problem and not to put Israeli security forces to the duty of taking down the illegal Arab complexes,” said King. “Senior municipal workers told me Olmert said not to bother with the illegal Arab homes because eventually eastern Jerusalem would be given to the Palestinian Authority.”
King’s report alleges Jerusalem municipal officials erased the files, which detail over 300 cases of Arab construction in eastern Jerusalem deemed illegal starting from 1999. The illegal buildings reportedly were constructed without permits and are still standing. According to law, they must be demolished.
Local media reports investigating King’s charges alleged the files were erased by Ofir May, the head of Jerusalem’s Department of Building Permits, with the specific intention of allowing the statute of limitation on enforcing the demolition of the illegal construction to run out.
The Jerusalem municipality released a statement in response to the allegations claiming the threat of Arab violence kept it from bulldozing the illegal Arab homes.
“During the years of the intifada, the municipality had difficulty carrying out the necessary level of enforcement in the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem due to security constraints,” the statement read.
King said the hundreds of buildings allegedly detailed in the deleted municipal files house more than 20,000 illegal units.
“We’re talking about perhaps 100,000 or more Arabs in eastern Jerusalem living in illegal homes with the government doing nothing about it,” King said.
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