Olmert: No Accord on Jerusalem This Year

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

JERUSALEM, July 28 -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a parliamentary committee Monday that Israel and the Palestinians will not be able to reach an agreement this year on the future of Jerusalem, officials said, all but scuttling hopes that the two sides will agree on the principles of a peace deal before the end of the Bush administration.

"I don't believe that understandings that will include Jerusalem can be reached this year," an official present at the closed-door meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee quoted Olmert as saying. At the same time, Olmert said gaps had been narrowed on other issues, such as the final borders of a future Palestinian state, and proposed establishing an unspecified "mechanism" for dealing with Jerusalem.

Nabil Aburdeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Reuters news agency that "we will not accept any agreement that excludes Jerusalem." Palestinians have long said that East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said Israel remains committed to reaching a "historic agreement" with the Palestinians by the end of the year, in keeping with promises made at a conference in Annapolis in November. "But we haven't even started to negotiate the issue of Jerusalem yet. Instead of letting the weakest link of the chain destroy the whole process, we are proposing that we find a mechanism to deal with Jerusalem in 2009."

Olmert also said that the situation in which Jews and Arabs live side by side in Jerusalem inevitably leads to violence. "Whoever thinks it is possible to live with 270,000 Arabs in Jerusalem must take into account that there will be more bulldozers, more tractors and more cars carrying out terror attacks," he said. Olmert was referring to two incidents this month in which Palestinian residents of Jerusalem deliberately plowed tractors into buses and cars in the city before they were shot dead. Three Israelis were killed in the first attack.

Regev also hinted that the leaks from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee came from parliament members who do not want the peace process to succeed. "It's coming out now because we're getting closer to the endgame," he said.

Olmert may be getting closer to his own endgame as a series of police investigations into alleged fraud and corruption continue. He is accused of illegally accepting more than $150,000 from American businessman Morris Talansky. Police are to interrogate Olmert for a third time later this week; he has said he will resign if he is indicted.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia have been meeting at least once a week for several months. There have been few leaks to the media of the content of those meetings, leading to speculation that progress was being made. Israeli and Palestinian officials said Olmert's statements on Jerusalem are likely to be high on the agenda.

Meanwhile, there have been growing internal Palestinian tensions between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank and dominates the Palestinian Authority. Fatah-linked security forces in the West Bank city of Nablus on Monday arrested dozens of Hamas activists, including university lecturers. In Gaza, Hamas refused to allow the distribution of three Palestinian newspapers that are published in the West Bank, saying they are allied with Fatah.

The tensions began in Gaza on Friday, when a bomb placed under a car killed five Hamas members and a 6-year-old Palestinian girl. Hamas blamed Fatah, which denied involvement. Over the weekend, Hamas detained more than 200 Fatah activists in Gaza.

A Hamas delegation is due to go to Egypt Tuesday to discuss the growing tensions.

"I'm quite pessimistic," said Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the Palestinian parliament. "There are forces on both sides that are trying to jeopardize any attempt to reach an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. There may be more violence and more infighting in the next few months."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company