September 1, 2000

Jerusalem's Temple Mount remains obstacle in peace talks


JERUSALEM, Israel, 31 August 2000 (Newsroom) -- As Israeli and Palestinian leaders continue their pursuit of an illusive peace agreement, the question of who will control Temple Mount -- sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims -- looms as the biggest obstacle to a settlement.

Discussion about the status of Temple Mount was taboo in Israel until recently. Opening the subject for debate has provoked powerful opposition from the Israeli nationalist-religious camp, which claims broad support from Jews around the world and has threatened violence if the sacred site comes under Palestinian sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Conference of Islamic countries, meeting in Morocco, on Tuesday adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestinian sovereignty over Muslim and Christian holy places. The conference also called on the United States not to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Temple Mount is sacred to Jews as the site of the First and Second Temples (the temples of Solomon and Herod the Great) and to Christians as the mountain where Jesus of Nazareth preached. Judaism maintains that the Temple Mount will be the place where the Messiah will come. Many Christians share that belief with respect to Jesus. Today the compound contains the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, because it is believed to be the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven.

Known in the Arab world as Al-Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount was annexed by Israel in 1967. The Israelis declared that the Mount would remain a Muslim site, but Jews could visit. The de-facto policy, however, was that Jews would not turn it into a place of worship. That policy has held because the chief Israeli rabbis ruled that Jews should not set foot on the Mount due to its sanctity.

Although Israel retains formal sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the site is governed by an Islamic trust that allows non-Muslims to visit the compound during limited hours and prohibits Jewish or Christian worshipers from reading prayers aloud. The Chief Rabbinate, which was to make a decision on the establishment of a synagogue on the Temple Mount last week, delayed its verdict under pressure from the Israeli government.

Peace negotiators are focusing on a proposal where no one would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount, but Palestinians would have authority over the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and there would be a place on the site where Jews could pray.

Egypt, under pressure from the U.S. to soften the position of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, has suggested a compromise by which the Palestinians would have sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, but not the Temple Mount, and Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Ultimate responsibility for security within the city would remain with Israel.

Arafat, meanwhile, is seeking international Christian support for Arab sovereignty over the entire site. The Palestinian leader frequently declares himself to be not only the guardian of Islamic sacred sites, but of Christian holy places as well. Palestinians are continuing construction work on the Mount, however, turning the underground vaults (Solomon's Stables) into a mosque and damaging archaeological layers that contain remnants of Jewish temples.

"(Prime Minister Ehud) Barak and Clinton were naive to think that Arafat could sign an agreement recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Haram," asserted Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research. "Never has a Muslim leader, in the history of Islam, willingly abandoned sovereignty over holy places. ... That would make Arafat a pariah in all the Arab and Muslim world."

During the Camp David talks in July, three Jerusalem Patriarchs -- Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox -- and the Vatican-appointed Custos of the Holy Land sent a letter to U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leaders asking to keep the Old City of Jerusalem undivided, to preserve the status-quo of churches, and to allow their representatives to participate at that summit and at all future talks to guarantee Christians' rights in the Holy City.

In Morocco this week, a delegation of six envoys from Christian churches in Jerusalem took part in the conference for the first time. The head of the delegation argued for the return of Jerusalem to Arab control.

"Al-Quds (the Arab name for Jerusalem) is an Arab and Palestinian city with its holy shrines, holy Islamic and Christian shrines," maintained Atallah Hannah, the Greek Orthodox head of the delegation and an ethnic Arab. "There will be no peace in the region unless the city is returned to its legitimate owners and becomes the capital of the Palestinian independent state."

However, Shmuel Avitar, the Jerusalem mayor's adviser on Christian affairs, told Newsroom that Jerusalem's historic Christian communities, the majority of whom are ethnic Arabs, fear the Palestinian Authority because of its record of corruption and discrimination against Christians. They reject any division of the Old City. Since it is Israel which now rules there, such a stand implies the continuation of Israeli control.

At the same time, the churches have renewed their call for international guarantees for the holy places. "In the past such calls were seen as directed against Israel, but there has been almost universal praise for Israel's administration of the holy sites," Avitar said. "With the perspective of Palestinian control, the guarantees might well be something the churches now sincerely want."

Approximately 5,000 Christian Arabs, 2,300 Armenian Orthodox, and 23,000 Muslims live in the Old City. The Christians are mainly middle-class shopkeepers, while Muslims typically are laborers or depend on Israeli unemployment benefits. The Christian and Armenian populations are dwindling rapidly, however.

"The Christians have left because of Muslim social and political pressure and the rise of Islamic nationalism," explained Amir Cheshin, an adviser on East Jerusalem to the previous mayor of Jerusalem.

Most of the Christian Arabs, according to the polls, favor Jerusalem becoming an international city, run by the UN. Israeli and Palestinian leaders reject that idea.

Because of the emotional and symbolic significance of the Temple Mount, neither side is prepared to cede complete sovereignty to the other. Both Barak and Arafat argue that their people would never accept such an agreement.

In recent weeks, Jewish radical groups have staged protests near the Temple Mount, threatening violence if Israel gives up the site. The group "Temple Mount Faithful" was prevented by Israeli police from entering the site for prayer and filed a new High Court petition. Jan van der Hoeven of the International Christian Zionist Center told Newsroom that the center is trying to "rally international Christian support" for Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who strongly oppose negotiating the Mount's status.

Gershon Baskin, director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, contends that the only possibility for resolution "is that the Palestinians may give on some kind of 'divine sovereignty' over the Temple Mount. There would be deniability of the other side's sovereignty."

Shikaki proposes a purposefully vague formula whereby both sides could claim sovereignty over the holy sites. "The Palestinians could have 'effective sovereignty' and Israel could retain formal sovereignty, though the part about Israel won't appear at all in the agreement," he suggested. "Arafat would just not mention it, but Barak could tell his people the day after the signing that Israel never renounced its own sovereignty."


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