JERUSALEM, July 21 (RNS)--The gold-plated roof of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rockblazes under the summer sun as Muslim worshippers gather for noontimeprayer on a broad esplanade around the Islamic shrine, perched on a hillthat dominates the skyline above Jerusalem's Old City.

A few dozen feet below the eighth-century mosque compound, piousJews touch and kiss the giant, bleached stones of the Western Wall, theretaining wall of the biblical-era Temple, which stood two millenniaago on the site of the Dome and its companion Al Aksa Mosque.

The dispute over these 35 acres of sacred rock stands at the heartof the political debate now raging between Israelis and Palestinians atCamp David over the future status of Jerusalem. Indeed, it could be saidthat almost the entire fate of the peace talks rests upon the site thatthe Bible calls "my holy hilltop."

Both Jews and Muslims pray to the same God. Yet conflicting claimsto the site--known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif--have stood at the heart of the bloody Arab-Israeli conflictthat has claimed countless lives over the past century and nowthreatens to derail a permanent peace settlement.

"Jews and Christians may look to Jerusalem as their holy city. Butit is God's will that Al Aksa be for the Muslims," Sheikh Ekrima Sa'aidSabri, the supreme Muslim religious leader, or mufti, of Jerusalem hasrepeatedly declared, outlining a position that is shared by Palestinianleader Yasser Arafat himself.

"The Temple Mount, the sacred and sanctified place of the Jewishpeople, must remain under Israeli sovereignty," declared Israeli ChiefRabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, echoing widespread Jewish sentiments on thematter, in a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak before his departurelast week to Washington.

Over the past decade of peace talks, public and private, Israelisand Palestinians have steadily sidestepped negotiations on thecontentious issue of who would ultimately be awarded sovereignty overthe Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites, which includes the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Israel had even sought to separate the issue from the broaderpermanent peace accord currently being discussed. But Arafat needs to win control of Al Aksa Mosque in order to justify a peace deal with the Israelis to the Muslim and Arab world.

And so now Jerusalem's moment has finally arrived.

"Arafat is aware of the weight of Jerusalem to Muslims and the Arabworld, and if he will ignore the city in a peace deal, he'll destroy hisown reputation as an Arab leader. That's why his mantra has become a'Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,'" notes Mordechai Keidar, a Middle East expert at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

Few other religious landmarks convey such visual awe as the massivegold-capped Dome, visible from much of Jerusalem, or the 60-foot-highand 158-foot-long Western Wall--images that are synonymous withJerusalem itself. No other site in the Holy Land is so laden withcenturies of religious tradition and laced with political, religious,and archaeological intrigue.

Synagogue prayer and study are the cornerstones of Jewish faithtoday, but traditional Jews still pray every day for the rebuilding of the Templeand the restoration of Temple sacrifice rituals--which would usher in amessianic era of history.

"There is only one real holy site in Judaism, and this is the sitewhere the Temple stood," says Orthodox Rabbi David Rosen, one ofIsrael's pioneers in interfaith dialogue. "The Bible says, 'God callshis name to dwell' in the Temple."

To Muslims, however, this is also a site with divine associations.It is the third most sacred site in Islam--the place where the seventh-century Prophet Mohammed ascended into the heavens atop his flying horseBurak from a protrusion of bedrock that is enshrined inside the Dome ofthe Rock.

Jews typically like to talk about how Muslims are a "Johnny-come-lately" to the sacred Temple Mount, since Muslim claims to the site dateback only to the eighth century.

Mainstream Muslim leaders, meanwhile, tend to downplay or even denythe site's association with the Jewish Temple described in the Bible.They insist that not a single stone has ever been uncovered from theancient 10th-century B.C.E. house of worship--the first Temple--said to have been built by King Solomon.

"History indicates that the Jews had a temple, but until today,they don't know exactly where it was," Sabri has said. "It could be inJericho or Bethlehem. There isn't a single stone here that has aconnection with the Jews.

In a future solution concerning Jerusalem, werecognize the rights of Jews to practice their religion and pray outsideof the [Western] wall. But that doesn't give them ownership rights."

Indeed, for nearly 1,000 years, until the early 20th century, Muslimrule over the site was unquestioned. Jews who approached the "WailingWall" did so timidly, and in mourning, over the faded glories of thepast. In 1948, the Temple Mount fell into the hands of theJordanians, and Jews were barred from visiting the wall for two decades.