JERUSALEM — Palestinian negotiators drafting an agreement behind the scenes with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office have made clear they will not accept any final peace deal with Israel unless the Jewish state forfeits the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, WND has learned.
According to a report in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot daily yesterday, Olmert is willing to discuss joint Israeli-Palestinian control over the Temple Mount complex. The report didn’t state the positions of the Palestinian side on the issue.
A chief Palestinian negotiator, speaking to WND on condition his name be withheld, said yesterday, “there can be no agreement with Israel unless we get complete sovereignty of the Mount. Once Palestinian control over the [Temple Mount] is fixed, then we will make assurances for Jewish visits to the site.”
The chief negotiator said aides from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization have been hammering out the parameters of a final status agreement for presentation in November at a U.S.-backed international summit regarding the Middle East.
Issues already discussed between Israel and the Palestinians reportedly include the division of parts of Jerusalem and debates regarding permanent borders between Israel and the PA.
The November international conference and talk from the Bush administration the past few weeks has led many here to speculate the U.S. will push in the near future for intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading to a Palestinian state.
With a year and a half left in office, President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been urging meetings between Abbas and Olmert to establish a framework for momentum leading to a breakthrough at November’s conference. Olmert and Abbas have been meeting bi-monthly in summits brokered by the U.S.
Asked by WND whether Olmert is willing to forfeit the Temple Mount in an agreement with the Palestinians, David Baker, a spokesman for the prime minister, had no comment.
Jews, Christians barred from praying on Mount
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. Muslims say it is their third holiest site.
The First Jewish Temple was built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Second Temple was rebuilt in 515 B.C. after Jerusalem was freed from Babylonian captivity. That temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in A.D. 70. Each temple stood for a period of about four centuries.
The Jewish Temple was the center of religious Jewish worship. It housed the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant and was said to be the area upon which God’s “presence” dwelt. The Al Aqsa Mosque now sits on the site.
The temple served as the primary location for the offering of sacrifices and was the main gathering place in Israel during Jewish holidays.
The Temple Mount compound has remained a focal point for Jewish services over the millennia. Prayers for a return to Jerusalem have been uttered by Jews since the Second Temple was destroyed, according to Jewish tradition. Jews worldwide pray facing toward the Western Wall, a portion of an outer courtyard of the Temple left intact.
The Al Aqsa Mosque was constructed around A.D. 709 to serve as a shrine near another shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which was built by an Islamic caliph. Al Aqsa was meant to mark where Muslims came to believe Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ascended to heaven.
Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Quran. Islamic tradition states Mohammed took a journey in a single night from “a sacred mosque” – believed to be in Mecca in southern Saudi Arabia – to “the farthest mosque” and from a rock there ascended to heaven. The farthest mosque later became associated with the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Currently under Israeli control, Jews and Christians are barred from praying on the Mount.
The Temple Mount was opened to the general public until September 2000, when the Palestinians started their intifada by throwing stones at Jewish worshipers after then-candidate for prime minister Ariel Sharon visited the area.
Following the onset of violence, the new Sharon government closed the Mount to non-Muslims, using checkpoints to control all pedestrian traffic for fear of further clashes with the Palestinians.
The Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslims in August 2003. It still is open but only Sundays through Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., and not on any Christian, Jewish or Muslim holidays or other days considered “sensitive” by the Waqf.
During “open” days, Jews and Christian are allowed to ascend the Mount, usually through organized tours and only if they conform first to a strict set of guidelines, which includes demands that they not pray or bring any “holy objects” to the site. Visitors are banned from entering any of the mosques without direct Waqf permission. Rules are enforced by Waqf agents, who watch tours closely and alert nearby Israeli police to any breaking of their guidelines.
‘Secret’ plan would give Palestinians West Bank
The talk of behind-the-scenes negotiations follows a WND report earlier this week stating newly installed Israeli President Shimon Peres has quietly drafted a plan for the Jewish state to evacuate and transfer to the Palestinians nearly the entire West Bank and several Arab Israeli cities located within territory that is undisputedly Israel’s according to the international community.
The West Bank is strategic territory that runs alongside Jerusalem and is within rocket range of Tel Aviv and Israel’s international airport. It is home to many biblical Jewish communities and some of Judaism’s holiest sites.
Peres has presented his initiative to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to top aides for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the past few weeks, after he took office as Israeli president last month, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem told WND.
The official role of president here is limited largely to ceremonial matters; the president does not create foreign policy.
Olmert is mulling over the plan and agrees with much of its contents, the diplomatic sources said.
Peres’ plan calls for Israel to hand 97-percent of the West Bank over to Abbas, with Israel retaining a small number of the territory’s Jewish communities. In exchange for Israel keeping some land, the Jewish state will give the PA control of Arab Israeli cities north of Tel Aviv which, together with the evacuated West Bank territory, would amount to the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank.
Already during his bi-weekly meetings with Abbas, Olmert has granted a number of security concessions to Abbas regarding increased Palestinian control of the West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister last month granted amnesty to 178 gunmen from Abbas’ Fatah organization who comprise most of the senior leadership of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the declared military wing of Fatah that is responsible for every suicide bombing in Israel the past three years.
Olmert is reportedly considering granting amnesty to 206 more Brigades terrorists. According to Palestinian officials, the Israeli Prime Minister already informed the PA that Fatah gunmen are largely immune from Israeli anti-terror raids regardless of whether they are officially on Olmert’s amnesty list.
Also, Olmert is strongly considering removing hundreds of Israel Defense Forces roadblocks and checkpoints situated in strategic sites located throughout the West Bank. The IDF sees the checkpoints as crucial in helping stop terrorists, including suicide bombers, from infiltrating Jewish cities.
As well, in a scantily-reported but major move, Israel last week started allowing armed Palestinian policemen to patrol areas in the West Bank that fall under Israeli security control according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Security in the territory, referred to as Area B, is supposed to be ensured by the IDF, which still monitors the area but has allowed for an unprecedented stepped-up armed Palestinian security presence there.
In response to the renewed momentum toward a Palestinian state, rabbis for the Yesha Council of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – yesterday slammed the Israeli government for considering major concessions.
The council released a statement expressing “concern at the irresponsible diplomatic moves being made during these days, the main point of which is the consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. These moves are founded upon irrelevant considerations of political survival, and are being made in total opposition to the opinion of the defense establishment.”
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