JERUSALEM - Of all the tough issues at Camp David, Jerusalem has proved the most intractable. And when the talks practically collapsed yesterday, the question of sovereignty over the holy city was widely believed to be the cause. The gaps were said to be too wide.
Or are they?
Given the white-hot passions over the issue among Israelis and Palestinians, neither side could be seen to have given up Jerusalem. It could cost Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak his job. Some say it could cost Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat his life. As a result, the danger of losing out on a comprehensive peace over Jerusalem always pushed the issue to the last.
But the code words so often attached to the issue - "sovereignty, "undivided" and even "capital" - have contained enough wiggle room to make a deal possible if the two sides could only agree that the status quo won't work.
Both sides claim sovereignty. Barak asserts it over the whole city, including sections captured during the 1967 Middle East war. Arafat claims sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem.
If the word means control over police, access, laws and municipal services, Israel has it now, though not totally. But if sovereignty also means the kind of security that allows Israelis to move safely throughout the city, the Palestinian uprising of a decade ago proved otherwise. Israelis are only now beginning to feel comfortable in Arab sections of the Old City, and few venture into Palestinian neighborhoods beyond the walled city that contains the great shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Nor does sovereignty mean control over those holy places. The Temple Mount, which Arabs call Haram al-Sharif, is a particularly delicate case. Each side has learned from bloody experience not to encroach too far on areas considered sacred by the other. Despite Israeli protests that construction under way on the mount is an "archaeological crime," Barak's government has not interfered.
"The fact that each side can assert claims to sovereignty is something that is viable, even if those claims are conflicting, as long as it's agreed upon," said Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist Daniel Seidemann.
Israelis are haunted by the period from 1948 to 1967, when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and barred Israeli access to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
"For 20 years we were cut off from the Western Wall. It was a very, very difficult situation," said Menachem Porush, a Jerusalem rabbi and key figure in the religious Agudath Israel party.
Soldiers wept as they touched the stones of the shrine after Israel reclaimed it in the 1967 war.
Seldom mentioned is that for much of Jordan's rule, the kingdom and Israel tried to avoid provoking each other over Jerusalem.
Despite Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and building of Jewish enclaves there in years since, it remains ethnically and geographically divided. Outside the Old City, the pre-1967 Green Line still largely separates two urban centers, Israeli and Arab.
Inside the walls, a clear division is on display after Friday prayers, particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Thousands of Arab men can be seen filing out of Silseleh Gate outside the Al Aqsa mosque, never setting foot in the nearby Jewish quarter as they walk out of the city.
The new Jewish neighborhoods, such as French Hill, Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Ya'akov, which collectively cover a third of East Jerusalem, are distinct enclaves. Besides the Western Wall and Jewish quarter, East Jerusalem includes areas of powerful importance to Israelis, including the Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
The city is also divided in services and institutions. Palestinian pupils follow a curriculum from Jordanian times. Jerusalem's Arabs say they get far less than their share of infrastructure improvements, city services or space in public schools.
Both sides claim the city as their capital, but need the other to cement their claim. Most of Israel's government departments are in Jerusalem, but the world doesn't recognize it as the capital. No major foreign government has an embassy here. The absence of an agreement with the Palestinians has prevented that. The international community considers East Jerusalem as occupied territory.
Jerusalem proved to be an impossible stumbling block during the 1978 Camp David summit, and was not addressed in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. In a letter to President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat proposed that East Jerusalem fall under Arab sovereignty, that religious sites be controlled by their respective faiths, and that the city's essential functions be undivided and under shared control.
According to a study by the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, most Israelis would still reject this formula or variations of it. A compromise giving Israel overall sovereignty and Palestinians control of Muslim sites and a "foothold" in the city could be accepted by Israelis, but would likely be viewed by Palestinians as a temporary solution.