Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israelis this week were startled to learn from a newspaper report that the country's senior religious leader seemed willing to allow Judaism's holiest site remain under Muslim control in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
The Hebrew-language daily, Ha'aretz, reported that Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron favored the Temple Mount remaining under Palestinian Authority control in the future.
The Mount is arguably the most hotly-contested piece of real estate in the Middle East. Jews revere it because it was the location of the ancient Holy Temple; one of two mosques located there is the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The tiny area in Jerusalem's Old City falls under overall Israeli sovereignty, but is overseen by a PA-appointed Muslim authority, the Wakf.
The Ha'aretz report was based on a letter by Bakshi-Doron, presented at an interfaith conference in Milan last week on the status of religious sites in Jerusalem.
He wrote that the status quo of the holy places, especially the Temple Mount, should be maintained.
"We must be concerned at any change in this status quo, as that could cause harm to the place and lead to bloodshed," Bakshi-Doron wrote. "Instead of doing injury to the holy places, we must respect and accept the status quo of the holy places."
Taken in isolation, the statement could be seen as a willingness to compromise on the Jewish people's claim to their most sacred site.
But Bakshi-Doron moved swiftly to counter this interpretation, stressing that what he had actually said was that the Wakf should not change the Mount's status quo.
He had written the letter to call on the Muslim authority to stop illegal building work it is overseeing on the Mount, which archeologists say is threatening the ancient site.
Bakshi-Doron reiterated his belief that Israel must "guard its sovereignty over the Temple Mount."
"If we don't protect the status quo, the Temple Mount can be a rock of contention that will cause the shedding of blood and the profaning of the holy place."
The Temple Mount is possibly the most significant potential stumbling block to achieving an agreement over Jerusalem's future, and Jerusalem's future is the most explosive issue to be hammered out in a permanent agreement.
Although the area is under Israeli sovereignty -- Israel wrested it from Jordanian control during a 1967 war - Israel has allowed continued Muslim oversight as a goodwill gesture.
That policy has been controversial with some Jewish groups, which have long agitated for free access to the holy site. Wakf authorities do not allow Jews (or Christians) to pray on the Temple Mount.
Many Jews will not walk on the platform, for fear on treading on the specific location of the heart of the Temple, called the Holy of Holies.
Since last November, the Wakf has carried out illegal construction work under the Temple Mount, described by Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem regional archeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, as "the most outrageous and barbaric destruction of a site that I've ever seen."
Israel last year gave the Wakf permission to open a small "emergency exit" to an underground mosque, but the authority is accused of failing to coordinate work with the IAA, as required by law.
Truckloads of dirt containing precious artifacts were hauled away and dumped nearby, creating a 30-foot mound, which has continued to grow since then.
Barak has been hesitant to halt the building, fearing political repercussions.
Israel dates its claim to the Temple Mount to the time of King David, whom the Bible records bought the "threshing floor of Araunah" to offer peace and burnt offerings to God. David's son, Solomon, built the first Temple there after David's death. Later, a second Temple was built to replace the first one, which had been destroyed.
The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD.
Although history records no visit by Mohammed to Jerusalem and the city is not mentioned by name in the Koran, Muslims hold that he visited the city during a "night journey" during which a magical steed took him from Arabia to heaven, via Jerusalem.
Six years after Mohammed's death, in 638 AD, Jerusalem fell to the Arab invaders. The grander of the two Temple Mount mosques, the Dome of the Rock, was built in 692 AD, and the Al-Aqsa mosque in the 8th century.