JERUSALEM — Thirty-three years after Israel captured the eastern flank of this holy city, 813 years after Saladin ejected the Crusaders and 1,930 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple, the battle for Jerusalem is once again being waged.
The city's future may soon be decided thousands of miles away at the Camp David summit, which on Friday was in its 11th difficult day. Or, its future will be the stumbling block that kills the summit and sends Israeli and Palestinian leaders hurtling into an ominous era of uncertainty.
Reports that Israel, for the first time in its history, may agree to share control of parts of Jerusalem with the Palestinians are being met here with excitement, anger and skepticism. The widely reported proposal, said to be acceptable to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, would have Israel giving the Palestinians partial control of eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Alarmed Jewish settlers called emergency strategy sessions. Elated peace activists flocked to the Western Wall. A senior Palestinian official scoffed at what she called empty trial balloons coming from the Israelis. The debate surged on radio talk shows, at religious shrines of three faiths, and in the cafes and shops that crowd the narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City.
The idea of Jerusalem as the "eternal, united and indivisible" capital of Israel has been the mantra of countless Israeli leaders, including Barak.
How extensive Palestinian control could be, from civil administration to sovereignty, varies. The Old City is not part of the proposal. In exchange, Israel would annex several Jewish settlements in the West Bank that are near Jerusalem.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of Barak's Cabinet and one of several appointed spokesmen for the summit, revealed details of the proposal Friday, largely confirming Israeli media reports. But a senior aide to Barak in Washington later cast doubt on the reports, and an aide to Melchior acknowledged that the minister hadn't spoken to Barak in a couple of days.
Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and unofficial spokeswoman for the Camp David Palestinian delegation, told CNN that she welcomed Israel's "breaking of a taboo" by negotiating on Jerusalem.
But she and other Palestinian officials continued to insist that any power-sharing proposal must give Palestinians complete sovereignty over East Jerusalem, as capital of a future Palestinian state.
The imam at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, presiding over Friday prayers, was more blunt.
"What kind of solution will be accepted if Israel insists that Jerusalem is its capital?" Sheik Hayan Idrisi said to hundreds of worshipers. "All evidence shows that the region is approaching a new wave of bloodshed. In the end, the people who were given the message from the Prophet Muhammad will win."
Israel captured eastern Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed the sector shortly after, a move never recognized by the international community.
An aide to Barak also signaled the shift in official thinking. Spokesman Eldad Yaniv went on national radio to defend Barak's determination to protect Israeli interests, namely "a big and strong Jerusalem with a solid Jewish majority that for the first time will enjoy international recognition as the capital of Israel."
Yaniv repeated that phrasing twice, omitting the word "united." Instead of the usual mantra, he used the argument that Barak would likely use to explain any decision to divide Jerusalem: The "solid Jewish majority" and "international recognition" can be achieved only if Israel releases the city's Arab neighborhoods.
If it comes to it, Barak's task in attempting to sell a Jerusalem proposal to his public will be formidable: A poll published Friday showed overwhelming opposition among Jewish Israelis to giving the Palestinians control over any part of East Jerusalem.
Ariel Sharon, leader of the largest opposition bloc, the right-wing Likud Party, accused Barak of violating his campaign promise to defend Jerusalem as the eternally united capital of the Jewish people.
"No Jew, none of us, not even my generation, has the right to make concessions on Jerusalem," Sharon said.
His ideological opposite, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, said it was about time that Israel move beyond the "warped myth" of pretending that the city is united, when Arab and Jewish neighborhoods exist worlds apart.
"Whoever thinks that in the current situation, united Jerusalem is recognized as the capital of Israel, is refusing to see the truth and is party to the myth with which we are deluding ourselves," Beilin told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "If, at this moment of truth, the Camp David talks fail over a thing that is not real, and never was, that will be a historic mistake."
The debate over Jerusalem is bitter and is waged in absolutes. Part of the debate has evolved into recriminations in which each side rejects the other's historical and religious claims.