JERUSALEM, Dec. 25 (AP)--Within the high walls of Jerusalem's Old Citylies a hilltop enclosure--revered by Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, orNoble Sanctuary--that is also the most sacred site in Judaism, the placewhere the biblical Temples once stood.

For many Israelis, though, it's more than a holy place--it is inextricablybound up with the country's sense of national identity.

And because of that, Prime Minister Ehud Barak may encounter opposition insome unexpected quarters if he seeks to cede control of the place Jews callthe Temple Mount as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

``The Temple Mount is the only central Jewish point--it's a symbol, andsymbols are always important,'' said Teddy Kollek, the much-loved formermayor of Jerusalem who has long favored peace and compromise with thePalestinians.

A secular man long identified with a holy city, Kollek said in an interviewwith The Associated Press that a deal as far-reaching as the one reportedlybeing considered could not win the approval of the Israeli public.

``At the moment, you certainly cannot persuade the Jews to give up theTemple Mount,'' he said. ``So we won't have an agreement.''

``The Temple Mount is in our hands,'' goes the phrase that electrified anation.

Kollek, who was elected mayor a year earlier, vividly recalls hearingparatrooper commander Col. Mordechai Gur's words June 7, 1967. Israelitroops had fought their way through the twisting alleyways of the Old City,until then under Jordanian control, to seize the hilltop.

Kollek remembers marching toward the mount behind military chief YitzhakRabin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan--all moments, faces and placesseared into the Israeli national ethos.

A few days later he met Israel's founding father and first premier, DavidBen-Gurion. He has remembered Ben-Gurion's words to him ever since.

``He said what we should do is decide exactly what is absolutely necessary(to keep), and all the rest give back as quickly as possible,'' Kollekrecalled. ``If we had done this, we would have saved many years oftrouble.''

Each Friday, multitudes of Palestinian worshippers stream to the hilltop forprayers at the Al Aqsa mosque compound; afterwards, they sometimes throwstones and clash with Israeli troops.

Passions over the site run so high that current round of violence wastouched off when hawkish politician Ariel Sharon, now running for primeminister, visited the site flanked by a throng of riot police - an acthorrified Muslims viewed as a desecration.

The mount is literally propped up by Judaism's sacred touchstone - the hugeslabs of yellowed rock that make up the Western Wall, the last remnant ofthe Second Temple, destroyed by Romans in 70 A.D.

Above sits the Al Aqsa, one of the holiest Muslim shrines; across a plazarests the ornate, gold-topped Dome of the Rock, fixture of postcards and symbol of Jerusalem. From here, the devout believe the Prophet Mohammedascended to heaven.

Ever since Israel captured the site, along with the rest of East Jerusalem,and the West Bank and Gaza, Muslim clerics have had day-to-day control overit. The decision was backed by rabbis, who reaffirmed rulings that Jewscannot enter the Temple Mount for fear of treading on holy soil. But Israelhas sovereignty.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat promised his people he would never backdown on the Palestinian quest to full sovereignty over the site--acondition Palestinian negotiators have adamantly held to through round after tortuous round of peace talks inaugurated by the landmark 1993 Oslo interimaccords.

``It has a lot to do with religion, identity, history, culture andcontinuity,'' said Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. ``But it's part ofoccupied territory. Very frankly, religious feelings ... have never been abasis for extending sovereignty over a place.''

Barak has hinted he's inclined to accept peace proposals put forth byPresident Clinton, even though they call for Israel giving up sovereigntyover the mount. Without an agreement, he warned Sunday, Israel could drift``into a situation of deterioration.''

Weary of battle, many Israelis are ready to agree to other concessions--butdig in their heels when it comes to the mount.

``For 2,000 years our people prayed to this city, dreamed of going back toone place: the Temple Mount,'' said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. Chief RabbiYisrael Lau asserted that ``nobody in government ... has the mandate forconcessions on the Temple Mount.''

Barak also faced criticism from within his own dovish Labor Party, wheremany would have preferred another interim settlement, postponing decisionson Jerusalem's future.

Cabinet Minister Roni Milo, a champion of secular rights, suggested he wouldquit if Barak adopted the reported proposals.

``The Temple Mount is an assetto the Jewish people, without which we weaken the basis for our very rightto be here,'' he said.