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In an interview he gave recently to the British weekly The Jewish News, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said the Arabs who pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque must recognize that Jerusalem belongs solely to the Jews. The Muslims, he said, already have Mecca and Medina, and therefore have no need for a third holy site. During the interview, he even suggested establishing the Palestinian state in the Sinai desert and moving the residents of Gaza there.

This extreme religious position is also expressed daily in the form of the threat held over the Olmert government by Shas, whereby any expression by the government regarding the possibility of Jerusalem being divided will cause the ultra-Orthodox party to quit the coalition immediately. That threat is based on a dangerous assumption: that not even a single stone in Jerusalem should be divided between the two peoples, since the city is holy only to the Jews.

It is outrageous that a chief rabbi of Israel, who receives his salary from the state, takes upon himself the responsibility for turning a political conflict into an inter-religious one. Instead of sticking to the principle of self-determination for the two nations, Metzger has adopted a position that in principle is identical to that of Hamas, which claims the entire territory of the historic British Mandate on behalf of the Arab people. Thus does the chief rabbi help turn a political conflict between 6 million Jews and 5 million Palestinians into a conflict with more than a billion Muslims.

Former minister Natan Sharansky has also tried to thwart every possibility of a division of Jerusalem, but via other means: He suggested transferring responsibility for the political decision regarding the fate of the city to the Jewish people. He didn't just mean that Diaspora Jews should be involved in the public debate, but wanted to give every Jew the right to actually vote on the future of Jerusalem - under the implied assumption that those in the Diaspora who are distraught over the future of Jerusalem will vote against its division without having to risk their lives for it.

Everyone knows that ultimately, there will be no choice but to split Jerusalem into two capitals, an Israeli one and a Palestinian one. Turning the already acute religious and national tension into an Armageddon that will incite the entire religious world is an irresponsible act.

David Ben-Gurion, who foresaw the dilemma from a distance in time, said in his final public speech, in 1973, that he would be prepared to concede East Jerusalem in exchange for 100 years of peace, since 100 years would be needed to turn the Jewish people into a nation. Ben-Gurion understood what Metzger, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and religious extremists down the line refuse to understand: In Jerusalem, only a political compromise that is completely separated from the religious conflict will work. Israel's extremist rabbis and nationalist leaders who refuse to accept this fact will lead us to the edge of the abyss. They would do well to exhibit a sense of national responsibility and at least keep their opinions to themselves, instead of repeatedly setting alight the Molotov cocktail called Jerusalem.

Knesset member Avshalom Vilan is a member of Meretz-Yahad; Maurice Stroun is a researcher in biochemistry at the University of Geneva.