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Turning Up The Heat On Barak

The leading Moslem cleric in Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Ikrima Sabri, is warning that he will reject any peace treaty with Israel that does not make Arab East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.

The ultimatum came Thursday against a backdrop of renewed diplomatic efforts aimed at meeting a September 13th deadline for a comprehensive Mideast Peace agreement.

Sabri said he joined Palestinian lawmakers and cabinet ministers and other Islamic officials in signing a document called the "Jerusalem pledge" which was distributed to Arab countries and the international community.

"It (the document) rings the alarm bell for Palestinians, Arabs and peoples of the world that we will never accept any piece of land as an alternative to Jerusalem," Sabri said.

"(There will be) no solution without Jerusalem being the capital of the Palestinian state," Sabri told Reuters.

The pledge signed by advocates of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital reads, in part: "We pledge to God and to our Arab and Moslem nations that Jerusalem will remain in our hearts, our feelings and our minds, and we will not cede its sand. We pledge to God to remain holders of Jerusalem's flag until we hand it over to our children and our grandchildren."

AP Photo
This Jewish settler says
Palestinian control of
her West Bank village
would be a disaster.

Israel, which captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it, insists the Holy City will remain its "united and eternal capital."

The fate of Jerusalem is one of the most thorny issues being tackled in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at ending more than a century of conflict by sealing a final peace treaty by September.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak has instructed his negotiating team not to conduct talks on the fate of Jerusalem. The negotiations will move to Washington next week, when Palestinian President Yasser Arafat meets with President Clinton.

Israel's Army Radio said on Thursday that Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami had been holding what it termed "private conversations" with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei on the fate of Jerusalem.

AP Photo
Prime Minister Barak
watches the Knesset
give initial approval
to a bill to hold
early elections.

Barak meanwhile is facing a political crisis. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Wednesday approved a bill which is the first step towards ordering early elections. The bill was passed with the help of the three coalition paties who make up Barak's government.

The Israeli prime minister, a wiry former commando, has responded by taking aim at his political foes. Barak is promising a new government rather than new elections, and says on Sunday he will fire the cabinet ministers from the parties that opposed him.

Barak's increasing unpopularity is sparking comment across the border in Egypt. "We are used to these problems every now and then," says Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. "We hope that the peace process could move forward. It is vital, very important for the stability of the area."

Mubarak is making his own diplomatic moves. He went to Geneva to meet with the president of the United Arab Emirates and plans to meet with Arafat, possibly on Saturday.

As for the U.S. role in the process, Secretary of State Madeline Albright says the Clinton administration is willing to work night and day for Arab-Israeli peace.

"We all, starting from the President on down, really want to get to work," said Albright. "We're going to keep pressing for a conclusion to this, which means instead of 20-hour days, we will be ready to work every day, 24 hours."

Albright commented Wednesday as she returned to the U.S. from a Mideast swing which included talks with Arafat, Barak, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara.

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