More than 200,000 Israelis, some wrapped in blue and white Israeli flags, jammed the streets outside the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, protesting proposals to give control of a disputed holy site to the Palestinians.
One of the biggest demonstrations in Jerusalem’s history, it reflected opposition to a key point of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s peace ideas, and spelled trouble for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, facing an election Feb. 6, with only one real issue — his readiness to make painful compromises for peace with the Palestinians.
Clinton was sending his Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Tuesday, as Clinton made a last-ditch effort to wring an agreement out of the reluctant neighbors before he leaves office Jan. 20.
The signs were not encouraging. The two sides disagreed about the outcome of a meeting Sunday in Cairo, chaired by CIA director George Tenet and attended by Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian security officials.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Tuesday that both sides had agreed to renew security cooperation by accepting a document Tenet presented at the meeting. Israel learned of the Palestinian agreement only Monday night, Ben-Ami said.
Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief for Gaza, insisted there had been no such agreement — or any other — in Cairo. The Palestinians had refused even to discuss a request to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, Dahlan added.
Israel is seeking renewed security cooperation with the Palestinians to help foil armed attacks and bombings before it eases sweeping travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza that bar Palestinians from leaving their towns and villages. The Palestinians say the restrictions must be lifted first.
Ben-Ami said that the closure of the Palestinian areas should be eased if the security situation allows it. “In my opinion, we need to lift this,” Ben-Ami told Israel radio.
In the West Bank, a 27-year-old Palestinian man was shot and killed late Monday in a clash with Jewish settlers. Palestinians said the confrontation started with Palestinian villagers stoning a settler’s car.
Also in the West Bank, a 12-year-old Israeli boy was wounded when Palestinian gunmen ambushed his family’s car.
Almost all of the 361 people killed in three months of violence have been Palestinians.
Clinton’s peace proposals call on Israel to make concessions in Jerusalem in exchange for a drastic reduction of the Palestinian demand that millions of nearly 4 million refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to Israel.
Both sides have rejected the compromises they were asked to make. However, a Palestinian official, requesting anonymity, said a speech by Clinton Sunday had a positive element — his first public mention of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The explosive Jerusalem dispute attracted a crowd of more than 200,000 Israelis to the gates of the Old City on Monday night. The focus is a hilltop where two sacred Islamic shrines, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, stand above the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples, Judaism’s holiest site.
Muslims believe the shrines mark the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The chief Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, mufti Ikrema Sabri, ruled Monday that Muslims may not give up any of the compound — or the air above it, or the ground beneath it.