JERUSALEM — THE future status of one of the world's most hotly contested cities is already looming large over the upcoming Israeli election.
Firing the first shot in the campaign, right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu accused Prime Minister Shimon Peres of conducting secret talks with the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority that will lead to the division of Jerusalem into two separate Israeli and Palestinian capitals.
Meanwhile, Ron Pundak, an academic who was an adviser to the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo interim peace accord between Israel and the PLO, confirmed that he has been conducting private discussions with leading Palestinians on possible permanent status solutions for the disputed city.
He said in an interview that the talks were designed to provide top policymakers with information on possible negotiating options, but denied that they had any official status.
The emotionally charged Jerusalem issue is regarded as one of the most powerful weapons in the political arsenal of the right-wing Likud, which is seeking to unseat Mr. Peres in elections scheduled for May 20.
Peres has been leading Netanyahu in public opinion polls ever since the November assassination of his predecessor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But analysts say that the hawkish Mr. Netanyahu could still upset the dovish Peres if he convinces middle-of-the-road Israeli voters that Labor will be too concessionary toward Palestinian demands for statehood and sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem, in permanent peace talks due to begin this May.
''Secret talks are going on right now in Europe on the future of Jerusalem after the elections,'' charged Netanyahu at a campaign press conference on Sunday, staged under the Likud's new campaign slogan: ''Peres will divide Jerusalem.'' Netanyahu added, ''If they [the government] are saying that Jerusalem will stay the way that it is today, then what is there to talk about?''
Right-wing Israeli groups are circulating flyers around the city warning that the re-election of Peres would trigger a ''transfer of Jews'' from the capital.
''We won't let anyone silence us on this issue. We're talking about the heart of the people. Talks are going on regarding how Labor plans to divide Jerusalem. The government won't permit massive building in the city, they've created a corridor [between Jewish and Arab sectors],'' charged Likud's Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai.
In an official statement released following a government cabinet meeting, Peres labeled the charges as ''incitement.''
''Jerusalem will remain united. The Likud doesn't have to preach to us on that score. After all, it was Yitzhak Rabin who liberated the city,'' said Israel's minister in charge of internal security, Moshe Shahal, referring to the 1967 war in which the late Rabin, as chief of staff, wrested control of Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan.
But Mr. Shahal reacted to the Likud charges by announcing that he would bar future visits by European foreign ministers to Orient House, the unofficial Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Pundak, meanwhile, said that his talks with Palestinian officials and academics on the future of Jerusalem have explored granting Arabs greater power in the city, while Israel retains sovereignty.
Pundak and a colleague, Yair Hirschfeld, were credited with opening the secret channels between Israel and the PLO in Oslo that eventually led to the signing of the 1993 interim peace agreement.
Today, the two men operate the Tel Aviv-based Economic Cooperation Foundation, which promotes Israeli-Arab development.
''Regarding Jerusalem, I see two clear guidelines,'' Pundak says. ''The city should never be divided, and Israel should keep its sovereignty over the current city borders.''
On the thorny Jerusalem question, proposals such as granting Palestinian residents administrative autonomy, creating a borough system, and creating separate Arab and Jewish municipalities operating under an umbrella administration all have been examined, he said.
The talks also have examined options for shared sovereignty or even the ''suspension'' of sovereignty over contested parts of Jerusalem's Old City, holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Pundak confirmed.
''These are ideas that people are raising. We don't commit ourselves but the idea is to check out each idea more thoroughly to see what is its impact on the life of the city, the inhabitants, and on coexistence,'' Pundak says.
Pundak adds that he had found common ground in talks with Palestinians that Jerusalem should remain an ''undivided and open city.''
''Nobody is seriously considering a division like the Berlin Wall today.''