Israelis 'could split Jerusalem'

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Two senior Israeli politicians, including the prime minister's closest ally, talked openly yesterday about dividing Jerusalem, signaling a possible shift in the Israeli consensus at a time when Israeli and Palestinian teams are trying to reach agreement on principles guiding future peace talks.

The dispute over Jerusalem is one of the most explosive of the conflict and has derailed negotiations in the past. The ideas raised by Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon still fall far short of Palestinian demands to establish their capital in all of the city's eastern sector, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Mideast War.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, told his parliament he won't be deterred from seeking a peace deal with the Palestinians. He said Israel has missed opportunities in the past, and warned that continued failure would mean a "demographic struggle steeped in blood and tears."

Olmert was unusually impassioned but short on specifics, and he made no mention of Jerusalem.

Later in the day, Israeli and Palestinian teams met for the first time to start drafting a joint declaration of principles that would guide negotiators if peace talks were to resume after a seven-year freeze.

Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said afterward that no results could have been expected from the first meeting, but he hoped a meaningful document would emerge.

The document, which is to address the key disputes — borders, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees — will be the centrepiece of a US-hosted Mideast conference in November.

Olmert's speech appeared to be a careful balancing act — sending an encouraging message to the Palestinians, while not giving his hardline critics at home too much ammunition by going into detail.

His central theme was a pledge not to miss an opportunity to reach a long-elusive peace deal, even if it requires costly concessions. Olmert said Israelis will have to led go of some of the beliefs that "fed the national ethos for many years," a reference to giving up West Bank land.