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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kollek, who was elected mayor a year earlier, vividly recalls hearing paratrooper commander Col. Mordechai Gur's words June 7, 1967. Israeli troops 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 Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan--all moments, faces and places seared into the Israeli national ethos.

A few days later he met Israel's founding father and first premier, David Ben-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,'' Kollek recalled. ``If we had done this, we would have saved many years of trouble.''

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

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

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

Above sits the Al Aqsa, one of the holiest Muslim shrines; across a plaza rests the ornate, gold-topped Dome of the Rock, fixture of postcards and symbol of Jerusalem. From here, the devout believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended 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 over it. The decision was backed by rabbis, who reaffirmed rulings that Jews cannot enter the Temple Mount for fear of treading on holy soil. But Israel has sovereignty.

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

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

Barak has hinted he's inclined to accept peace proposals put forth by President Clinton, even though they call for Israel giving up sovereignty over 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--but dig in their heels when it comes to the mount.

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

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

Cabinet Minister Roni Milo, a champion of secular rights, suggested he would quit if Barak adopted the reported proposals. ``The Temple Mount is an asset to the Jewish people, without which we weaken the basis for our very right to be here,'' he said.

A poll of 501 Israelis published in the Yediot Ahronot daily on Monday, with a 4.5 percent margin of error, indicated 57 percent opposed ceding the Temple Mount.

``There are considerations that go beyond the purely religious,'' said Barry Rubin, deputy director of Bar-Ilan University's BESA center. ``If (the Palestinians) have sovereignty on the mount, what if they throw stones from there down at people praying at the (Western) Wall? The last three months have not increased Israeli confidence that the Palestinians will keep their commitments in a peace agreement.''

There were a few voices--though only a few--urging compromise, even at a great emotional cost.

``The sanctity of the Temple Mount does not come from Israeli sovereignty over the place,'' wrote political analyst Menachem Klein in Monday's editions of the Haaretz daily. Israel's future, he said, shouldn't depend on ``dictates from the past.''

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