Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday urged Israeli leaders to relinquish the idea of a unified Jerusalem if they truly want peace, contending in a pair of interviews that years of government neglect have kept the Jewish and Arab sectors irreparably divided.
The comments, made as Israel marked the 45th anniversary of East Jerusalem’s capture, were nearly unprecedented for a mainstream Israeli leader and put Olmert at odds with successor Benjamin Netanyahu.
Celebrating Israel’s control of the city on the Jewish state’s “Jerusalem Day,” Netanyahu declared his government was committed to keeping it the country’s undivided capital.
“No Israeli government since 1967 has done even a smidgen of what was needed in order to unify the city in practical terms. That is a tragedy that is going to lead us, for want of another choice, to making inevitable political concessions,” Olmert told the Maariv daily.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and immediately annexed the area, home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites as well as a large Arab population. The Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem the capital of an independent state that includes the neighboring West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Speaking on Sunday evening from the site of a Jerusalem battle from that war, Netanyahu said the city would not be partitioned.
“Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart. And our heart will never be divided again,” he said.
The future of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues at the core of the conflict. Jerusalem’s Old City is home a compound sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram Ash-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Jews revere it as the site of their two biblical Temples and Muslims regard it as Islam’s third-holiest site.
“There are those who believe that if we only divide Jerusalem and that means giving up the Temple Mount, they believe we will have peace,” Netanyahu said. “I am doubtful, to say the least, that if we deposit that square of the Temple Mount with other forces, that we won’t quickly deteriorate to a religious sectarian war.”
“I know that only under Israeli control is accessibility and religious freedom ensured, and will continue to be ensured to all the religions. Only under Israel will the quiet be preserved, only under Israel will the peace between the religions be ensured,” Netanyahu said.
Olmert said the notion of a united Holy City is unrealistic. He pointed to a number of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, saying they have not been integrated into the rest of the city.
“We can’t unite them and connect them to the real fabric of life in Jerusalem and except for grief, we haven’t gotten anything from them,” he said.
Olmert went through a dramatic political transformation late in his career.
As Jerusalem mayor from 1993 to 2003, he was an outspoken hardliner opposed to concessions to the Palestinians. Then, as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, he pursued a peace agreement envisioning broad territorial concessions to the Palestinians before a corruption case forced him to step down.
In those talks, Olmert offered to turn over parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and have the Old City, home to the most sensitive religious sites, be administered by an international consortium including Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Jordanians and Saudis.