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Municipal Elections Key to Jerusalem's Future - 2003-06-01

On Tuesday, the citizens of Jerusalem choose a new mayor and council to govern the most politically sensitive city in the Middle East. The future of Jerusalem is also back on the agenda as one of the key issues to be resolved under the new international road map to peace plan for the region.

When the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, stepped down this year to become a member of the Israeli parliament, he set the stage for a battle for the secular and religious heart of the Holy City.

His deputy, Uri Lupolianski, an ultra-orthodox Jew, took over in an acting capacity, and is now one of the leading candidates for mayor in Tuesday's election. A victory for Mr. Lupolianski would signal the further rise in power of the Jewish religious community in Jerusalem.

His main rival is Nir Barkat, a secular, self-made millionaire businessman, who wants Jerusalem to become a magnet for high-tech industry.

Mr. Barkat's supporters fear that, if elected, Mr. Lupolianski will impose an agenda based on the beliefs of the ultra-orthodox, including banning leisure activities, such as football matches, on the Jewish Sabbath.

Haim Baram, a left-wing commentator for the city's Hebrew newspaper Kol Ha'ir, the Voice of the City, said these fears are unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of the religious community. "I think there is a certain, I would even put a strong word, anxiety. Many, many secular people are afraid of the orthodox Jews, especially because they do not know them enough," He said.

Mr. Baram said he believes Mr. Lupolianski is, in fact, the best and most experienced candidate, a man dedicated to healing the rift with the secular community and also improving conditions for the Palestinian residents of the city.

At the same time, he said that whoever wins the election will have no bearing on the future of Jerusalem, which both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim as their political and religious capital.

"Jerusalem is important, but I do not think the mayor of Jerusalem will have any important or decisive role in determining the fate of Jerusalem. This is up to political negotiations between us and the Palestinian people. And, personally, I hope that there will be a division of sovereignty between us and the Palestinians in Jerusalem, as a solution to this thorny problem," Mr. Baram said.

The problem of Jerusalem is to be thrashed out in what are called final-status negotiations under the road map to peace plan.

This plan calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005. The Palestinians insist that the capital of such a state can only be Jerusalem.

At the Camp David peace summit in 2000, the then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, broke with tradition by offering to share sovereignty over the city with the Palestinians.

But the offer was turned down by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and a few months later a violent Palestinian uprising began, and negotiations collapsed.

The summit in Jordan, scheduled for Wednesday, with U.S. President George W. Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers is an attempt to set the stage for a formal resumption of peace talks.

And one of the key issues to be resolved in negotiations will be Jerusalem, which many observers believe holds the key to reaching a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the importance of Jerusalem to both sides and to the international community, Israeli commentator Hirsh Goodman said there should have been a much stronger array of talent in the race for mayor. "It is a very sad comment that the people who are running in this mayoral race are really people who none of us know. There is not one single serious national personality who wanted to do it," he said.

Mr. Goodman said the problems of the city are such that no politician of any real standing wanted to become a candidate.

He said those problems include the fact that Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country, with a population that is one-third Palestinian. The other two-thirds are Jewish, including many ultra-orthodox Jews, who do not work and therefore lower the amount of tax revenue available.

Mr. Goodman said that if the peace talks prevail, it could result in even greater challenges, including a situation in which both Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem have to share power and live in peace.

"I do not think this city will ever be divided. I think you may have joint sovereignty, joint control, joint government, but I do not see a 'Berlin wall' going up through the middle of the city as a result of peace. And that is exactly why the mayor of this city has to be a statesperson, a statesman," Mr. Goodman said.

Mr. Goodman said one of the main tasks facing the successful candidate for mayor will be the preservation of what he calls Jerusalem's delicate mosaic, and encouraging the return of pilgrims and tourists to a city that is considered holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.