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Jerusalem Issue Looms Large at Annapolis Peace Conference

Israeli and Palestinian leaders and delegates from around the world are gathering for this week's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. One of the most difficult issues on the agenda is the status of Jerusalem, a city that is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Israeli right-wing activists have launched the "One Jerusalem" campaign, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not make concessions on the Holy City at this week's peace conference in the United States. Activists are passing out half a million gold ribbons at intersections, urging Israelis to tie them to their cars in solidarity with a united Jerusalem.

One activist, Baruch Segal, told VOA that negotiating for Jerusalem is a catastrophic mistake.

"It breaks my heart to see what the government is doing, that they think this can bring peace by dividing up Jerusalem," said Segal. "It is a disaster."

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the sacred Old City, from Jordan during the Six Day War in 1967. Since then, it has been an Israeli slogan that Jerusalem would remain the united capital of the State of Israel forever.

But in a major policy shift, Prime Minister Olmert has said that he is prepared to hand over many of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Palestinian control.

Polls show that a majority of Israeli Jews oppose the plan, but less predictably, it has also aroused mixed feelings among Arab residents of Jerusalem.

An Arab shopkeeper, who identified himself as Marwan, prefers to remain under Israeli rule. He says the Palestinian Authority has not established a stable government since it began to rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994.

"And everything went downhill after this," said Marwan. "You ask me, 'You want to live under Palestinian government?' I say, 'There is no Pal government yet.'"

Another Arab resident, Younes Matouk, believes Israelis and Palestinians must share Jerusalem in order to bring peace.

"We must to finish it, not for me and for you and for him," said Younes Matouk. "We must to finish it for the future of our children."

The thorniest issue with regard to Jerusalem is the fate of the Old City, which is home to the Mosque of al Aksa, the third holiest place in Islam. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Temples, and the holiest place in Judaism. The Palestinians and Arab world have long demanded that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders, which would include relinquishing the Old City, but Israel says that will never happen.