The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said today that Israel and the Palestinians would not be able to agree on the final status of Jerusalem by the end of the year. "I don't believe that we can reach an understanding that will include Jerusalem by the end of the year," Mr Olmert told parliament's powerful foreign affairs and defence committee, according to a senior official. He expressed optimism the two sides could bridge their differences on other core issues in the decades-old conflict. But he seemed to rule out a comprehensive deal by year-end, despite a commitment by the two sides made at a US-sponsored conference last November that revived peace talks.
"There is no practical possibility to reach an overall understanding on the issue of Jerusalem at this time," Mr Olmert said. "But there is an intention to create a mechanism that will continue to deal with the issue for a much longer period until we reach understandings that we can live with." Israel captured mostly Arab east Jerusalem - including the Old City with its holy sites sacred to Christians, Muslims, and Jews - in the 1967 war and annexed it shortly afterwards.
It declared the whole city its eternal and undivided capital, a claim never recognised by the international community, and the Palestinians have demanded east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. The two sides launched their latest round of peace talks after a seven-year hiatus, vowing to try to reach a comprehensive agreement by the end of the year. The talks have made little tangible progress since then, but Mr Olmert said the gaps on other core issues, including the fate of 4.5 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees and final borders, could be bridged by the end of 2008.
"On the other core issues the gaps are not dramatic. On the issue of refugees we can reach an understanding that will not make us assume responsibility or have to solve the issue within Israel's borders," he said. "On the question of the borders there is a gap that is not unbridgeable." Mr Olmert has vowed to put any agreement to a national referendum. *AFP