PM: Delay Talks on Jerusalem to Avoid Derailing Peace Process

Olmert tells Kadima members it is preferable to begins negotiations with matters that are less sensitive.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that discussion over the future of Jerusalem should be held off until a later phase in negotiations with the Palestinians, to avoid the risk of derailing peace talks.

"The topic of Jerusalem is very sensitive in this regard," the prime minister told a Kadima faction meeting. "it is preferable to begin with subjects where there is a chance to reach understandings than to open with matters that have high initial opposition."

Olmert told Kadima members, "the negotiations will cover all the pending issues, but not necessarily with the same intensity. It's better to start with issues on which the gap between the two sides is not that wide."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday in response to the suggestion that "all contentious questions were on the table, and that the Palestinians don't exclude any issue."

Meanwhile, a senior political source Sunday that the prime ministers is also concerned that talks on Jerusalem have the potential of breaking up the coalition, considering that the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has threatened on numerous occasions to leave the government if the topic is mentioned in negotiations.

"It is obvious to him how a solution to the question of the borders and the refugees would look like, and that it would more or less be in line with proposals that have been raised in the past," the source noted.

"On the other hand, on the question of Jerusalem, he [the prime minister] has many doubts and he is not inclined to adopt any of the solutions or ideas that have been raised in previous negotiations."

Paris talks

The question of Jerusalem was raised during talks held by Foreign Ministry Director General Aaron Abramovich in Paris a week ago.

Abramovich met with Jean-David Levitte, adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on foreign affairs, and with other senior French Foreign Ministry officials, briefing them on the progress in the negotiations.

Haaretz has learned that the Abramovich told the French officials that it is highly likely that that the negotiations on Jerusalem will have to be postponed because of the domestic political crisis that they might trigger.

Abramovich last night denied having raised domestic political concerns in the matter of Jerusalem during his talks in Paris.

It also appears that U.S. President George W. Bush supports postponing talks on Jerusalem until the end of the negotiations. During his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority two weeks ago, Bush released a statement in which he describes how he views progress in the negotiations. According to the U.S. leader, Jerusalem is "a difficult matter," politically and religiously for both sides, and describes a solution to the issue as the most complicated challenge of the process.

The political challenges on the issue of Jerusalem focus on Shas, even though sources in Olmert's office say that "the matter for Shas is not the discussion on Jerusalem but its final outcome."

However, Shas' Council of Torah Sages met Sunday to discuss the party's red lines on negotiations with the Palestinians and decided that "the minute they begin talking on Jerusalem, Shas will immediately leave the government."

Shas leader Eli Yishai briefed the council on his latest talks with the prime minister on the negotiations with the Palestinians, and said that he had been promised "there would be no freeze to construction in Jerusalem, Ma'aleh Adumim and Beitar [Ilit]."