JERUSALEM - Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday urged Israeli leaders to relinquish the idea of a unified Jerusalem if they truly want peace, contending in a pair of interviews that years of government neglect have kept the Jewish and Arab sectors irreparably divided.
The comments, made as Israel marked the 45th anniversary of capturing east Jerusalem, were nearly unprecedented for a mainstream Israeli leader and put Olmert at odds with his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Celebrating Israel's control of Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared his government was committed to keeping the entire city Israel's undivided capital.
"No Israeli government since 1967 has done even a smidgen of what was needed in order to unify the city in practical terms. That is a tragedy that is going to lead us, for want of another choice, to making inevitable political concessions," Olmert told the Maariv daily.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and immediately annexed the area, home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites as well as a large Arab population. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of an independent state including the neighbouring West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Olmert said the notion of a united Holy City is unrealistic. He pointed to a number of Arab neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, saying they have not been integrated into the rest of the city.
"We can't unite them and connect them to the real fabric of life in Jerusalem, and except for grief, we haven't gotten anything from them," he said.
Olmert went through a dramatic political transformation late in his career.
As mayor from 1993 to 2003, he was an outspoken hard-liner opposed to concessions to the Palestinians. Then, while prime minister from 2006 to 2009, he pursued a peace agreement envisioning broad territorial concessions to the Palestinians before a corruption case forced him to step down.
In those talks, Olmert offered to turn over parts of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and have Jerusalem's Old City, home to the most sensitive religious sites, be administered by an international consortium including Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Jordanians and Saudis.
Olmert claimed his talks with the Palestinians came tantalizingly close to an agreement. The Palestinians have said Olmert did not go far enough.
Since taking power three years ago, Netanyahu has repudiated Olmert's willingness to partition the city. With a newly expanded coalition, Netanyahu has cemented a formidable majority for his hardline policies.
"We have a great obligation to the unity and development of Jerusalem," Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, as he marked what Israel calls "Jerusalem Day."
The Palestinians have refused to conduct peace talks with Netanyahu unless he halts settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. About 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, approaching the Arab population of about 280,000. Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions.
On Sunday, Israel marked the anniversary with a series of marches and speeches throughout the city. The Palestinians' chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Israeli celebrations were "clear proof" that Israel is not interested in peace. "Clearly, this behaviour reflects the mentality of a colonizer, rather than a supposed peace partner."
The status of Jerusalem is among the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defying resolution throughout two decades of on-again, off-again peace talks. Today, the Arab and Jewish sections of the city are worlds apart.
Job discrimination against Arab Jerusalemites is common and investments in infrastructure and education in east Jerusalem are far below the levels plowed into the western sector. The discrimination has stifled economic development, fueled chronic joblessness and stoked poverty.
"We often use slogans in regard to Jerusalem and refrain from looking at the reality of Jerusalem. The result is that the discrepancy is something that many people have trouble adjusting to and accepting," Olmert told Israel TV.
A report on east Jerusalem by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel backed up Olmert's arguments.
Israeli government policies have fueled a 78 per cent poverty rate among Palestinians in east Jerusalem, the group said, citing statistics from Israel's National Insurance Institute. In 2006, the poverty rate was 64 per cent.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel is committed to narrowing gaps in the city.
Also Sunday, Israel's Shin Bet security service said it had arrested nine Palestinians who tried to kidnap Israelis in the West Bank. The agency said in a statement that the ring made three unsuccessful kidnapping attempts in March, hoping to ransom the Israelis for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Last year, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a captive Israeli soldier.