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(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted he would agree to relinquish control of some east Jerusalem neighborhoods during a speech at the Knesset Monday.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams are slated to meet to work on a joint declaration ahead of the US-sponsored Middle East meeting scheduled for next month.
Jerusalem, along with refugees, borders, settlements, security and water, are the issues that are being discussed in these negotiations.
At a special Knesset ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi (Ghandi), Olmert said Ze'evi was responsible for drawing up the present city map of Jerusalem, which the Knesset approved on July 27, 1967.
"It is thanks to that decision that we now have wonderful and vibrant neighborhoods such as Ramot, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Givat Hamivtar, Pisgat Ze'ev, Armon Hanatziv, Har Homa and Gilo, not to mention the Jewish Quarter in the Old City," he said. "Was it necessary to also add the Shuafat refugee camp, Sawakra, Walaje and other villages and define them as part of Jerusalem? On that, I must confess, I am not convinced."
This is not the first time Olmert has made such statements. In a Jerusalem Post interview in June 2004, he said the Jerusalem periphery neighborhoods of Isawiya, near French Hill, the nearby Shuafat refugee camp, Anata, the northern neighborhood of Kafr Akab, and the southern neighborhoods of Sur Bahir and Umm Tuba near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, were areas he would be willing to cede to Palestinian control.
Nevertheless, Olmert's words in the Knesset on Monday attracted a great deal of attention because they were made at a time when the issue of Jerusalem is being discussed with the Palestinians, and while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region.
When he talked about the diplomatic process in his speech to the Knesset last week, marking the start of the winter session, Olmert made no mention of Jerusalem.
Earlier Monday, Rice - at a press conference following a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - said: "Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state. I wanted to say in my own voice to be able to say to as many people as possible that the United States sees the establishment of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution as absolutely essential for the future, not just of Palestinians and Israelis, but also for the Middle East and indeed for American interests. That's really a message that I think only I can deliver."
Rice's comments come amid her attempts to bridge the gaps between Israel and the PA regarding the nature of the joint declaration that is expected to be endorsing at the planned Middle East meeting.
While Israel wants a general statement, and does not see the document as a prerequisite for the conference, the Palestinians want to see a detailed document that set deadlines for the start and end of final-status negotiations.
Rice didn't say whether she wanted the document completed before the conference. She did, however, indicate she wanted the conference to deal with substantive issues.
"We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo-op," she said.
Rice praised Israel and the Palestinians for making their "most serious effort" in years to end the conflict.
Monday was the second day of a four-day shuttle mission for Rice, who is trying to create common ground ahead of the conference. A State Department official hinted on Sunday that the meeting might be postponed. However, aides of Abbas suggested Monday that the gathering would at most be rescheduled for early December.
Rice met with Abbas at his Mukata headquarters in Ramallah. Her trip was briefly delayed by what turned out to be a false security alert. Her convoy stopped at an Israeli fire station after Israeli police spotted a suspicious vehicle near a crossing point. The convoy moved on after 15 minutes.
Following the meeting with Abbas, Rice returned to Jerusalem and met with Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, part of a series of meetings she is holding with key cabinet ministers.
She also met with Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders at the US Consulate in east Jerusalem.
Rice is scheduled to travel to Egypt on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak. She will return to Jerusalem Tuesday night and meet Wednesday for a second time with Olmert and also with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was recently named the head of Israel's negotiation team with the PA. On Thursday Rice will meet Jordan's King Abdullah in Britain.
Sheera Claire Frenkel and AP contributed to this report.â€¢