Secret talks focusing on Jerusalem status

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"The meetings are on the ministerial level, with the aim of exploring each side's position on Jerusalem," said Ziyad Abu Ziyad.

"We are not talking about social gatherings. These are meetings that are scheduled with each side knowing that Jerusalem is going to be the topic of discussion."

Aliza Goren, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, would neither confirm nor deny Abu Ziyad's claims.

"There are no negotiations under way on Jerusalem," Goren said. But she added, "If [Abu Ziyad's] claims that there are meetings of one kind or another are correct, they are not being conducted with the knowledge or approval of the prime minister."

There have been several reports in recent weeks of meetings concerning Jerusalem being held by Israeli and Palestinian academics. The meetings are being conducted with the government's approval and, at times, with its cooperation.

Abu Ziyad said he had participated in these informal meetings, and that he believed both the Palestinian and Israeli participants were acting with the full knowledge of their respective leaders.

But Peres insisted Saturday that Jerusalem will not be at the negotiating table with the Palestinians at any time in the future.

Speaking to the convention of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Peres said Jerusalem in the past was only the capital for the Jews, and that it is nonsense to turn it into a divided city as was done with Berlin, Israel Radio reported.

The final-status talks about Jerusalem are scheduled to begin in May, under the terms set down in the Oslo Accords.

Adding to the heat over Jerusalem, Jordan's King Hussein this week expressed support for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Hussein made the comment while addressing reporters Sunday at Amman Airport, where he saw off Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had been on a visit to Jordan.

Jordan now has custodianship over Islamic holy sites in eastern Jerusalem.

Hussein has already said he would be willing to discuss that role once Israel and the Palestinians negotiate the final status of Jerusalem. Permanent-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians are set to begin in May.