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JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s statements yesterday that Israel’s sovereignty over the Temple Mount is not up for negotiation are “false,” according to a chief Palestinian negotiator who told WND the Israeli leader already agreed to forfeit Judaism’s holiest site to a coalition of Arab countries.
“What Olmert said [regarding the Mount] is absolutely false. I think he’s not yet ready to tell the Israeli public and is waiting for the right time and he fears his coalition with religious extremists will fall apart if he announces it now,” said a senior Palestinian negotiator, speaking to WND today from Annapolis on condition his name be withheld.
Olmert’s maintains a government coalition with the religious Shas party and Russian Yisroel Beiteinu party but if those two bolt, the prime minister could create a new coalition with leftist parties.
The chief Palestinian negotiator said in months leading up to Annapolis the Palestinian team was “surprised” by Olmert’s willingness to give up the Mount.
“We had intense debates on many topics, which remain open and unsettled, but the Harem Al-Sharif (Temple Mount) is not a sticking point. The Israelis didn’t argue with us. We were pleasantly surprised Olmert didn’t debate about giving the lower section of the [Mount] either, which was a sticking point in the past.”
According to the negotiator, Olmert agreed to evacuate the Mount but not to turn it over to the Palestinians alone. The negotiator said both sides agreed the Temple Mount would be given to joint Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian Authority control.
He said the Israeli government felt an umbrella group of several Arab countries controlling the holy site instead of only the PA would help ease Israeli domestic opposition to giving up the Temple Mount, since Egypt and Jordan are considered by Israeli policy to be moderate countries.
The Palestinian negotiator pointed out Israeli prime ministers previously denied withdrawal plans only to later carry them out. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, elected on a platform against evacuating territory, denied for his first year in office he would retreat from the Gaza Strip but in 2005 he carried out a Gaza withdrawal.
In a briefing to reporters yesterday, Olmert claimed Israel’s sovereignty over the Temple Mount is not up for discussion. He said negotiations started at this week’s Annapolis summit had no bearing on the situation on the Temple Mount.
At the start of Tuesday’s summit, President Bush read a joint declaration agreed to by Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas committing the two to launch immediate negotiations aimed at “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.”
The parties said they would aim to conclude an agreement before Bush leaves office next year, with Israel widely expected to evacuate large swaths of the West Bank and eastern sections of Jerusalem, handing Abbas the strategic territories. Israel recaptured the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, in 1967.
“The negotiations will address all of the issues which we have thus far avoided dealing with,” said Olmert on Tuesday. “I am convinced that the reality that emerged in our region in 1967 will change significantly. I know this. Many of my people know this. We are prepared for it.”
Olmert would not be the first Israeli leader willing to forfeit the Temple Mount.
During U.S.-led negotiations in 2000, Ehud Barak, then prime minister, reportedly was willing to forfeit the Temple Mount to international control. The negotiations fell through after Palestinian President Yasser Arafat rejected an offer of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern sections of Jerusalem.
Adviser Gilad Sher – who represented Barak at initial Israeli-Palestinian planning meetings in 2000 during which President Clinton discussed the Temple Mount – wrote in his book “Beyond Reach” that Clinton’s plan called for the Temple Mount to become Palestinian sovereign territory, while the Western Wall below and its complex would fall under Israeli sovereignty.
Barak was said to have initially rejected that plan, but according to participants at the negotiations summit, he was ultimately willing to place the Mount under international sovereignty.
Israel bars Jews, Christians 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 Muhammad 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.
To interview Aaron Klein, contact Tim Bueler Public Relations by e-mail, or call (530) 401-3285.