AS Israel launches a 15-month celebration of Jerusalem's 3,000th birthday, the ancient holy city is again embroiled in a controversy over Israeli and Palestinian claims to have Jerusalem as their capital.
But this time the wrangling is likely to rage unabated until the turn of the century. The final status of Jerusalem should be settled under the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord by then, and tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims are expected to descend on the city for the 2,000th birthday of Jesus of Nazareth.
The ever-present tensions over Jerusalem resurfaced due to a sequence of events over the past two weeks.
Last week, Islamic extremists set off the worst bomb attack in Jerusalem since the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization peace deal was signed in 1993. Five people were killed, and more than 100 others injured.
On Monday, the Israeli government closed three Palestinian offices linked to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), which Israel claims are operating in contravention of the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule accord.
Israel issued an ultimatum for the three offices either to cease operating or show that they had cut all links with the PA.
Palestinian negotiators indicated Wednesday that a compromise could be in the offing, but the order has angered Mr. Arafat. His spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, yesterday said the order would be contested in a court, but he did not specify whether it would be an Israeli or international court.
But Orient House, the PLO headquarters and the focus of controversy over PLO presence in Jerusalem, has not been included in the closure order.
Next Monday, Israel launches a 15-month program of festivities to mark the 3,000th birthday of Jerusalem, but the celebration is already embroiled in controversy.
Muslim religious leaders, some Christian leaders, and international bodies - notably the European Union - have indicated that they will snub the festivities because they regard them as one-sided. They say Jewish history of the city is emphasized at the expense of Muslim and Christian history.
The EU notified Israel earlier this month that it would boycott all events held under the ''Jerusalem 3,000'' celebration and withdraw subsidies for EU-funded bodies included in the official program.
Muslim leaders argue that Jerusalem 3,000 is a thinly veiled effort to influence world opinion regarding Israel's claim of perpetual sovereignty over the holy city in advance of negotiations on the final status of the city due to begin in May 1996 under the phased Israel-PLO peace accord.
Until the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, Jerusalem was a divided city like Berlin used to be, with walls and Israeli military checkpoints separating Arab East Jerusalem from Jewish West Jerusalem.
Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, it has administered the holy city as Israel's undivided capital. The Jewish population of Jerusalem has swelled to about 405,000, while the Palestinian population is estimated at about 155,000.
But the Israeli population of East Jerusalem, which recently surpassed the Palestinian population, has grown from zero in 1967 to 160,000 today as a result of Israeli settlement in the area.
''As far as we are concerned, Jerusalem is a divided city,'' Faisal Husseini, the PLO's senior representative in Jerusalem told an interfaith religious conference held in Jerusalem's Old City this week.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a senior member of the right-wing Likud opposition, which opposes the Israeli-PLO peace accord, warned Tuesday that Jerusalem would eventually come under Palestinian rule if Israel agreed to let Arab residents of Jerusalem take part in upcoming Palestinian elections.
But Mr. Olmert, who is demanding the closure of the PLO's Orient House headquarters in Jerusalem, said that he would not prevent Palestinians from voting if Israel's parliament approved their participation. Palestinians claim the eastern part of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Amid this controversy, the Community of Saint Egidio, a lay Roman Catholic group that promotes world peace, this week held a conference in Jerusalem with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders.
Israeli Economic and Planning Minister Yossi Beilin, a leading peace advocate, said at a round table discussion at the conference that the only way to solve the issue of Jerusalem was to separate the religious and political aspects of the debate.
''We are dealing with one of the most delicate situations in the world. Wherever you go, things are holy - even if you don't know it.
''For Jews, there is no holier place than Jerusalem. But both sides need to understand the other's red lines when it comes to Jerusalem,'' he said.
Mr. Beilin, who advocates that final status negotiations under the Israel-PLO accord should be brought forward, said there has been some progress toward a consensus over the future of Jerusalem.
He said free access for worship is already established, and Israel is adamant that Jerusalem should never be a divided city again. It is also accepted that the 160,000 Palestinians living in the city have to be accommodated.
Mr. Husseini, who disclosed he has been engaged in a five-year dialogue with Beilin, said that the crucial factor for any future deal over Jerusalem was that Palestinians should not feel that someone else was ruling them.
''The only way to solve the problem of Jerusalem is to accept that there is one city, but rights for two people. There will be capitals in the East and the West, but the city will be open - call it two capitals in one open city or one open city with two capitals,'' he said.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of Israel's Anti-Defamation League and its liaison with the Vatican, said in an interview with the Monitor that the Saint Egidio conference would help further a climate of coexistence and mutual respect on the Jerusalem issue. ''This conference provides the psycho-spiritual glue that holds the political peace process together,'' he says.
Rabbi Rosen says he agreed with Beilin that the final status talks should be advanced to facilitate an agreement over Jerusalem.
He says that once the boundaries of a Palestinian entity had been agreed, a solution for Jerusalem could be achieved by postponing the sovereignty issue and having one united municipality for Jerusalem.
''The division of sovereignty of Jerusalem should not be delineated. Instead, a single municipality with its own police force should be developed for the city and all its people. Eventually, the sovereignty issue would become irrelevant.
''I don't think any Israeli government could survive tampering with Israel's sovereignty for Jerusalem,'' Rosen adds.