A new Jewish-Muslim initiative is seeking to derail the planned Museum of Tolerance, which is currently being built in Jerusalem on the site of a former Muslim cemetery.

The initiative's hopes to get the site declared ritually impure under Jewish law, due to the fact that the construction has involved unearthing the remains of hundreds of Muslims. Such a declaration would keep religious Jews from visiting the museum.

The proposal has already received the blessing of Rabbi David Schmidl, head of the ultra-Orthodox Atra Kadisha organization, which fights against the desecration of Jewish graves. Its Jewish sponsors - who include two left-wing activists plus one activist from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party - are also seeking support from Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, but he has not yet replied to their letter.

The museum, which is being built in Jerusalem's Mamilla neighborhood by the Wiesenthal Center, occupies a site that served for hundreds of years as a Muslim cemetery, but was then turned into a parking lot. Because the work involves unearthing hundreds of skeletons and reinterring them at the margins of the site, it has aroused fierce opposition from Muslim groups, who petitioned the High Court of Justice against it.

However, the court accepted the museum's argument that the lack of Muslim objection when the site was turned into a parking lot indicates that it is no longer deemed holy ground.

The new initiative is the brainchild of Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem city councilman from the Meretz Party who is active in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and Gershon Baskin, who is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

Three months ago, they approached Shas activist Meir Sheetreet, who is known to be close to the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Sheetreet said he believed it would be possible to obtain a joint Jewish-Muslim declaration about the sanctity of the site. It was Sheetreet who approached Schmidl and secured his support for the initiative.

In return, Sheetreet asked his leftist partners to obtain a promise from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the sanctity of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus would be respected, and Baskin did so.

"Because Joseph's Tomb is recognized in the [Oslo] Accords as a holy site, the PLO recognizes and honors what was agreed to," wrote Rafik Husseini, Abbas' bureau chief, in a letter to the activists. The Palestine Liberation Organization is the group that signed the Oslo Accords on the Palestinians' behalf.

Husseini also wrote that he expected Israel to recognize and respect the sanctity of the Mamilla cemetery and refrain from moving the remains of the people buried there.

After receiving the letter, Sheetreet asked Amar to issue a similar statement demanding respect for the sanctity of the Mamilla cemetery. However, that was more than a month ago, and he has yet to receive a reply.

Sheetreet told Haaretz yesterday that he was sorry the initiative was being publicized at this stage. The goal, he said, is a joint, public declaration by Jewish and Muslim religious authorities against "trampling on the honor of the dead."

He added that he has not approached Yosef on the matter because he wants to keep the initiative strictly religious, and due to Yosef's role in Shas, his involvement might make it seem political.

A spokesman for the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in response to the criticism:

"The Museum of Tolerance project was built on land split between an an eight-level underground parking lot and an above-ground parking lot (fossils found in the above-ground lot have been moved to the nearby Muslim cemetery). The aforementioned parking lot was and is used to hold thousands of vehicles in the center of Jerusalem. Attempts to declare the land on which this lot is built a holy place has no grounding in common sense. The attempt to sell the idea to the Palestinian Authority borders on deception. It is unfortunate that sometimes observers take steps and use the name of the Museum of Tolerance without checking the facts with us."