Despite the current focus on Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza, there is no territorial issue as likely to sabotage hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as the final status of Jerusalem. This issue, while not in the international headlines, continues to fuel the conflict.

The battle for control of Jerusalem and its holy places has always provoked passionate and often belligerent emotions from Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In the words of historian Karen Armstrong, "Once an issue like Jerusalem is elevated beyond the reach of compromise, the most extreme and immoral actions become not only possible but 'holy' to a disaffected minority."

Jerusalem need not be the cause of such conflict. The city is often mistakenly portrayed as a source of religious tension between Muslims and Jews, but an examination of the city's history and religious significance reveals a legacy of coexistence enshrined in Jewish and Islamic traditions. This legacy is largely ignored by Israelis and Palestinians, which suggests that the current conflict has more to do with divergent territorial ambitions than with religious claims.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of sovereignty over the compound that consists of the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Al Aqsa Mosque, a site sacred for Jews and Muslims. Analysts and journalists have a habit of writing that the compound is known to Jews as the "Temple Mount," as it is believed to be the site of the first and second Jewish Temples, and to Muslims as "Haram al Sharif," or the "Noble Sanctuary."

The use of these terms is accepted as a form of journalistic impartiality, yet it falsely suggests that Jewish and Islamic claims to the site are derived from different historic and religious narratives and thus irreconcilable. In reality, Islamic and Jewish beliefs concerning the site's sacredness are complementary.

According to Islamic tradition, Al Aqsa Mosque--Arabic for "the farthest mosque"--was built on the site of the "night journey" and subsequent ascension to heaven of the Prophet Muhammad. According to a number of orthodox Muslim scholars, Muhammad visited Al Aqsa because it was the site of the Jewish Temples--a place close to God.

That Al Aqsa and the Dome sit where they do today is also perfectly reconcilable with Jewish belief and tradition. According to documents found in the Cairo Geniza, an archive of ancient Jewish manuscripts, the Caliph Omar--famed builder of the Dome of the Rock--asked the Jewish community to aid in the shrine's construction in order to make sure it was built over the Temple's "foundation stone."

In return, the Caliph allowed Jews to return, establish houses of worship, and rebuild their community--rights not accorded to them by their former Christian rulers. This history makes it particularly disheartening to hear some Palestinian religious and political leaders deny Jewish connections to the city.

Orthodox Jewish tradition holds that Jews may not visit the Temple Mount, as they might tread on sacred ground in a state of ritual impurity. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, spiritual leader of the fervently religious Shas political party in Israel, proclaimed "it is absolutely forbidden to ascend to the Temple Mount according to Jewish Law. ... It is also forbidden as it might antagonize the Muslim nations."

This interpretation, to which most credible religious scholars subscribe, suggests that the controversial visits of religious and secular Israelis--including the infamous visit in 2000 by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--are expressions of nationalism, not the performance of a religious rite.

Many religious Jews understand that when they pray three times a day for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, they are not thinking about adding housing units to West Bank settlements like Maale Adumim. These prayers refer to the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty and coming of the Messiah, not the sovereignty of the state of Israel over Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.

Instead of providing inspiration for coexistence based on mutual respect for a shared religious heritage, Jerusalem remains the physical and emotional center of the Middle East conflict. In this case, religion has been co-opted by nationalists who have failed to learn from this heritage.

If Israelis and Palestinians are to begin to solve their conflict, then the recognition of a shared religious legacy is an imperative starting point. Judaism and Islam have a much better chance of finding common ground than do Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

Such was the understanding of the late pope, John Paul II, who during his historic visit to the Holy Land in 2000 offered these words to the Israeli and Palestinian people: "It is the duty of believers--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--to seek every means to promote understanding and mutual trust in favor of peace for a land that God wanted holy."
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