Bending Over Backwards to Find Accord on Jerusalem

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Politicians and academics in Washington and the Middle East are exercising all their skills to find a flexible formula for resolving the Israeli-Arab dispute over the Temple Mount.

Acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is scheduled to meet in Washington on Wednesday with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to seek a way of pushing forward the negotiations with the PA.

The Palestinians at the weekend paved the way for negotiations to continue when the PLO's mini-parliament postponed its declaration of independence, which had been scheduled for Wednesday.

President Clinton's special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross is due in the region, according to unconfirmed reports, at the end of the week or beginning of next week to oversee renewed bilateral talks.

PA Chairman Yasser Arafat said Wednesday the U.S. would expend its efforts over the next five weeks to try to advance the talks, which he would be restarted under U.S. supervision and in coordination with Europe and the Arab states, particularly Egypt.

The main issue on the agenda remains that of sovereignty on the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem.

In a rare interview with the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, Ben-Ami was quoted as saying Israel was asking for sovereignty under the Temple Mount as well as at the Wailing Wall and in the Jewish Quarter, one of four divisions making up the walled Old City.

However, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday Ben-Ami's comments were taken out of context.

The ministry did confirm that Ben-Ami said Israel would agree to international guarantees that no archeological digging would be conducted under the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temples once stood.

An American initiative being considered by the Palestinians, according to Israel radio, is placing the Temple Mount under the Islamic sovereignty of the Jerusalem Committee.

The committee was established by the late Moroccan King Hassan in 1975 to campaign for Arab rule in Jerusalem.

Foreign ministers associated with the committee met two weeks ago and renewed their support for a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, and including Muslim and Christian holy sites under its sovereignty.

The American proposal would give a measure of control on the Temple Mount to the PA.

"We are still studying this recommendation," PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo was quoted as saying. Acceptance would be conditioned on the PA maintaining legal, civil, criminal and security control a well as management of the holy places, he added.

Reuven Merhav, fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, said it was the Palestinians who must now give a little on talks regarding the Temple Mount.

Merhav, a former director-general of the foreign ministry, was called in by Barak as an advisor on Jerusalem at the recent Camp David summit. The JIIS was founded seven years to tackle the problem of Jerusalem in Israeli-PA negotiations.

The Arab side would definitely have to recognize the Jewish historical and religious connections to the Temple Mount, Merhav said.

During the Camp David summit, the PA insisted the Jewish people had no right to the Temple Mount, and suggested that the first and second Jewish temples were mythical.

This was an attempt to "undermine the claim of the Jewish nation to the Temple Mount," Merhav said, and to "emphasize their [own] claim."

The first and second Jewish temples were built on what is now known as the Temple Mount to the western world and Haram al-Sharif (the noble sanctuary) to Muslims. Following the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 AD by the Romans, the golden-crowned Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock was built in 692 and the al-Aqsa mosque in the early 700s.

Merhav said Israel would agree to make a "special arrangement" to safeguard the safe passage of Muslim worshippers from the Palestinian Authority-ruled areas and Jordan to the Mount.

This passage, he said, would allow Arabs to reach the Temple Mount without passing through Israeli security checks. But ultimately Israel would hold sovereignty over the passage and could close it in necessary to prevent over-crowding or for security reasons. Otherwise, there would be an autonomous Arab management on the Temple Mount.

With the question of the Temple Mount solved, Merhav believes, arrangements could be made for some kind of autonomous management of the entire Old City, recognizing its "special international heritage."

A redrawing of municipal boundaries within Jerusalem could place many of the Arab residents under PA control, he said. This could pave the way for a solution to political rights on eastern Jerusalem, which Arafat wants to make the capital of his state.

However, Merhav said, if there was no clearly-stated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, accompanied by a Palestinian change in attitude toward Israel, Israelis would never accept such an agreement, he said.