Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright decided not to tour Jerusalem's Old City Wednesday, apparently after learning that she would be accompanied by the city's Israeli mayor, Ehud Olmert.
Her decision, regarded as a snub by the mayor's office, follows a dispute between the Palestinian Authority's Islamic religious trust and Israel over construction work under the Old City's Temple Mount.
Olmert's office told CNSNews.com that according to protocol, every governmental VIP who visits Jerusalem meets the mayor and tours the Old City with him.
"Once Mrs. Albright knew that Mayor Olmert would accompany her on the tour, she canceled her program," said Hagai Elias, spokesman for the office.
Larry Schwartz, press attach\'e9 at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said a tour of the Old City for Albright had been "considered" but "she didn't have enough time."
"She's been here five times and she expressed an interest in touring the city," Schwartz told CNSNews.com. But it didn't fit into the schedule, he added.
However, during her one-day trip to Israel and the PA, Albright - who recently discovered her Jewish ancestry - will find the time to tour the Church of the Nativity in PA-controlled Bethlehem.
Schwartz explained that U.S. policy generally allows governmental officials to visit the Old City and West Bank privately but not in the company of Israeli officials, because it is considered "occupied territory."
Eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, was captured by Israel - along with the West Bank, Sinai and other areas - during the 1967 Six-Day war. Between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan joined the Arab assault on Israel, both the Old City and eastern Jerusalem were in Jordanian hands.
Israel reunited the divided city after the war, but it left Islamic authorities in charge of Muslim shrines, including the two mosques atop Judaism's most holy site, the Temple Mount.
Israel considers a united Jerusalem to be its eternal capital, while the PA wants to see the eastern section of the city become the capital of a Palestinian state as part of the permanent status negotiations.
The sensitivity of the situation in the Old City was highlighted earlier this week when Olmert and other Israeli officials accused the PA's Muslim trust (the Wakf) of illegally opening doors in what's known as Solomon's Stables, underneath the Mount.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave authorization in August for the opening of an emergency exit from the mosque. However, several entrances to the underground prayer hall were opened instead.
Any construction in the Old City must be done under the watchful eye of the Antiquities Authority, but it had not been consulted by the Wakf in this project.
Olmert and other officials charged that the Wakf was destroying important Jewish archeological sites and weakening Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Zevulun Orlev, head of the Knesset committee that oversees the Antiquities Authority, told CNSNews.com that he was sorry to see the Wakf had excavated a giant hole, large enough to bring bulldozers into this "most sensitive area."
Orlev, whose National Religious Party is a member of Barak's coalition government, accused the government of "closing its eyes" in the matter and suggested that he might have to go to the Supreme Court to force a stop to the illegal building.
Barak stepped in on Tuesday to ease the tension. After meeting with Olmert, government ministers, police and other officials, he decided to allow the opening to remain as it is. However, he instructed the Wakf to coordinate future projects with the Antiquities Authorities.
"The Municipality of Jerusalem is waiting to see if the decision of the government will be carried out in the situation," said Elias of the mayor's office.
In 1996, violent riots broke out in the West Bank, leaving dozens of Palestinians and Israelis dead, after Israel opened an exit from an ancient archeological tunnel running adjacent the Temple Mount.