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

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

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

Both Jews and Muslims pray to the same God. Yet conflicting claims to 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 conflict that has claimed countless lives over the past century and now threatens to derail a permanent peace settlement.

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

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

Over the past decade of peace talks, public and private, Israelis and Palestinians have steadily sidestepped negotiations on the contentious issue of who would ultimately be awarded sovereignty over the 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 broader permanent 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 Arab world, and if he will ignore the city in a peace deal, he'll destroy his own 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 massive gold-capped Dome, visible from much of Jerusalem, or the 60-foot-high and 158-foot-long Western Wall--images that are synonymous with Jerusalem itself. No other site in the Holy Land is so laden with centuries of religious tradition and laced with political, religious, and archaeological intrigue.

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

"There is only one real holy site in Judaism, and this is the site where the Temple stood," says Orthodox Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel's pioneers in interfaith dialogue. "The Bible says, 'God calls his 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 horse Burak from a protrusion of bedrock that is enshrined inside the Dome of the 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 date back only to the eighth century.

Mainstream Muslim leaders, meanwhile, tend to downplay or even deny the site's association with the Jewish Temple described in the Bible. They insist that not a single stone has ever been uncovered from the ancient 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 in Jericho or Bethlehem. There isn't a single stone here that has a connection with the Jews. In a future solution concerning Jerusalem, we recognize the rights of Jews to practice their religion and pray outside of the [Western] wall. But that doesn't give them ownership rights."

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

When the site was captured in the 1967 Six Day War, falling into Jewish hands for the first time since the biblical period, many observant Jews saw it as an omen signaling the start of the messianic era when the Temple would be rebuilt.

Their hopes were quickly dashed by Israel's secular leaders, who left the day-to-day control of the mosque compound in the hands of the Islamic Wakf, or Trust, fearing another conflagration with the Arab world. The move was sanctioned indirectly by Israel's chief rabbis, who cited traditions that forbid Jews to tread upon the Temple Mount before the Messiah had arrived.

But the agreement in fact satisfied neither Muslims, who sought full sovereignty, nor grass-roots Orthodox Jews, who were becoming infused with messianic energies and wanted to gain practical control of the site.

Over the past months in quiet peace negotiations, politicians have attempted to dig through the weighty bedrock of religious tradition, seeking "creative" solutions to the conflicting claims of ownership and sovereignty over Old City holy sites.

At the Camp David summit, for instance, American mediators were reportedly playing with plans to connect the al-Haram al-Sharif compound by road, tunnel, or bridge to Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods would then be turned over to the Palestinians, while the Western Wall and the adjacent Jewish and Armenian quarters of the Old City would remain Israeli.

But negotiators are struggling against the weight of thousands of years of Jewish and Muslim religious tradition, mysticism, and symbolism that does not yield easily to a spirit of Western pragmatism. Almost any solution is likely to trigger violence from religious extremists on one side or the other.

"An Arab flag over the Temple Mount would have the same symbolic importance as the sacrifice of a pig in the Temple in Jerusalem," declared Israel Harel, a prominent Jewish settler figure and religious right-wing commentator, in an editorial Thursday in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz.

Such are the emotions that American, Israeli, and Palestinian negotiators must consider as they continue their quest for Middle East peace at Camp David.

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