JERUSALEM - Two senior Israeli politicians, including the prime minister's closest ally, talked openly yesterday about dividing Jerusalem, signaling a possible shift in Israeli opinion about one of the Mideast's most contentious issues.
The dispute over Jerusalem has derailed negotiations in the past, and the latest comments come at a time when Israeli and Palestinian teams are trying to agree on principles guiding future peace talks.
The ideas raised by Vice Premier Haim Ramon still fall far short of Palestinian demands to establish their capital in all of the city's eastern sector, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Mideast War.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, told parliament he will not be deterred from seeking a peace deal with the Palestinians. He said Israel has missed opportunities, and warned that continued failure would mean a "demographic struggle steeped in blood and tears."
Olmert was unusually impassioned but short on specifics. He made no mention of Jerusalem.
Later yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian teams met for the first time to start drafting a joint declaration of principles that would guide negotiators if peace talks were to resume after a seven-year freeze. Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said afterward that no results could have been expected from the first meeting, but he hoped a meaningful document would emerge.
The document, which is to address the key disputes - borders, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees - will be the centerpiece of a US-hosted Mideast conference in November.
Olmert's speech appeared to be a careful balancing act - sending an encouraging message to the Palestinians, while not giving his hard-line critics at home too much ammunition by going into detail.
His central theme was a pledge not to miss an opportunity to reach a long-elusive peace deal, even if it requires costly concessions. Olmert said Israelis will have to let go of some of the beliefs that "fed the national ethos for many years," a reference to giving up West Bank land.
Olmert praised Mahmoud Abbas, whom he has met six times since the spring, as a trustworthy partner, but at the same time portrayed the Palestinian president, known as Abu Mazen, as weak. "I know that the gap between the honest and fair intentions of Abu Mazen and [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, and their ability to translate that into reality is troublesome and arouses concerns," Olmert said.
Olmert was heckled occasionally, but interruptions were mild for Israel's freewheeling parliament. "Is Jerusalem a dream?" legislator Reuven Rivlin shouted when Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor, told parliament Israelis would have to forego some of their national dreams and aspirations.
It's not clear whether Olmert could muster the political support to push through a peace deal. His popularity dropped after the 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and he is the target of several corruption probes.
Today, he is to be questioned by police about allegations that he interfered in the government's sale of a bank while serving as a Cabinet minister. Indictment would force him to step down.
Earlier yesterday, Olmert's closest ally, Ramon, raised the idea of a possible division of Jerusalem in interviews on the two main radio stations. Later in the day, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the hard-line Israel Beitenu Party, a member of Olmert's coalition, told a news conference he is ready to hand over some Arab neighborhoods of the city.
The proposals of Ramon and Lieberman would fall far short of a Palestinian demand to set up their future capital in all of the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of the city. The eastern part contains the Old City, home to major Jewish, Muslim and Christian shrines.
Still, the public debate was remarkable. Ramon suggested that there's been a shift in the Israeli consensus, noting that the three main parties in Olmert's coalition all favor a division, and disagree only about where the line should be drawn.