JERUSALEM - Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert marked the onset of the Jewish New Year on Monday by telling the Yediot Aharonoth newspaper that if Israel wanted peace it has to exit East Jerusalem, the Golan and almost all of the West Bank.
Olmert's remarks hours before Rosh Hashanah, which is traditionally a period of soul-searching and atonement for past wrongs, may be seen as an olive branch to Israel's Arab neighbours or as another sign of Olmert's fast-waning power.
"A decision has to be made," said Olmert, who had insisted when he was Jerusalem's mayor that the city would never be divided. "This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years."
While Israel controls almost every official aspect of life in Jerusalem, the holy city's 450,000 Jews and 270,000 Muslims have almost nothing ever to do with each other outside the workplace and the shopping malls.
Jerusalem's two solitudes have been especially noticeable this week. With the holy month of Ramadan having ended Monday night and the feast of Eid to be celebrated Tuesday, and with the Jewish New Year having begun at sunset on Monday, the most important Muslim and Jewish religious holidays will overlap for the first time in 12 years.
"I don't know of one Palestinian who will spend Rosh Hashanah or Eid with a Jewish Israeli," said Ryad Meshal, a 40-year-old taxi driver from a Palestinian suburb north of the Old City, who intends to celebrate Eid on Tuesday evening with a feast with family and friends.
Although Jews constitute about 80 per cent of his taxi business, Meshal said it would be unimaginable for him to ever invite Jews to an Eid dinner. Nor did he think it possible than any of the thousands of Jewish families living within walking distance of his home would ever invite him to break bread with them at Rosh Hashanah.
"Muslims and Jews may mix a little in Jaffa or Haifa but never in Jerusalem," Meshal said. "The problem is: Who does the city belong to? We think it is ours. They think it is theirs."
Like Meshal, the Palestinian taxi driver, Avi Pazner, who is an Israeli government spokesman and former ambassador, said he had never attended a private gathering "where an Arab had been invited.
"This is not a decision dictated by others. People here - Muslims and Jews - just don't feel like it."
Tensions have risen somewhat recently in Jerusalem because of three incidents in which Palestinians used vehicles to carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli drivers and pedestrians.
"But the amazing thing is that there is so little terrorism here," Pazner said moments before he and his family began a traditional New Year's meal of apples dipped in honey and gefilte fish. "The communities do not mingle but they live together quietly and that is quite an achievement."
One of the few groups that sometimes arranged private gatherings in Jerusalem that coincide with religious holidays is the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel.
"People like us try to reach out," said Rabbi Ron Kronish, the ICCI's director, who had recently attended several "iftar" dinners that end the daily daylight fast that Muslims undertake during Ramadan.
Paradoxically, Kronish said that the religious violence in the Holy Land and elsewhere sometimes makes it easier for Jews and Muslims to co-operate as had the "rude awakening" that came with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001.
"I am not saying that there is a lot of this," Kronish said. "It is quite modest but there is more of this than there has been in the past."
Many Israeli commentators and politicians have dismissed what Olmert had to say about relinquishing control of East Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank as a futile attempt by the prime minister to leave some kind of legacy not connected to the corruption allegations that he faces.
Meshal also rejected Olmert's epiphany.
"It's just talk," he said. "It only matters if something is actually done."
© Canwest News Service 2008