December 28, 2000
Control of the Temple Mount looms as a potent election issue.
The lines are being drawn this week for what the Israeli tabloids are calling "The Battle for Jerusalem." At Camp David in July, Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke a 33-year taboo by opening Israel's "eternal, undivided capital" to negotiation. Barak is grappling with the consequences as he dashes for a deal before Bill Clinton leaves the White House and as he awaits the verdict of the voters.
The latest polls suggest that Israelis are ready to compromise on Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements -- up to a point. A Dahaf survey in Yediot Aharonot found 60 percent agreeing to transfer Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian control, 39 percent disagreeing and only 1 percent undecided. But when they were asked specifically about the Temple Mount, 57 percent opposed transferring it to Palestinian control, even if Israel kept the Western Wall down below.
Israelis were equally selective about the other concessions that were discussed in last week's Israeli-Palestinian talks at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C. and now form the core of Clinton's bridging proposals. A clear majority, 51 percent to 46 percent, supported Palestinian rule on 95 percent of the West Bank, with Israel retaining blocks of settlements close to the old Green Line border. But a much larger majority, 72 percent, rejected the return to their homes in Israel of even a token number of refugees who fled in 1948.
However, when they were asked if they would support a peace agreement including the entire package, 48 percent said "no" to 43 percent saying "yes." On this question, 9 percent still had to make up their minds. If Barak can finesse the fine print, he may yet be able to win them over.
Sever Plotzker commented in Yediot on the poll: "Ehud Barak can latch onto these findings. A certain improvement in the two sections, which are difficult for the Israeli public to swallow, are likely to bring those who hesitate closer to supporting the agreement. But Ariel Sharon too can rely on the poll. The number who oppose the agreement already exceeds those who agree to it. A bit more public relations, and the balance will tilt against. The struggle will be for the souls, perception and emotions of about 10 to 15 percent. It has already begun."
Israelis, it seems, have come to terms with the de facto division of Jerusalem. But yielding the Temple Mount, with its religious and symbolic resonance for all Jews, is much harder to swallow. Not surprisingly, Sharon and his Likud allies are focusing on this issue. And they are already drawing support from influential figures who back the peace process in general and would rather see Barak than Sharon in the prime minister's mansion. They include at least one minister in Barak's government, Roni Milo, who defected from the Likud to joint the Center Party and may now well be on his way back.
The Likud mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, led the charge, accusing Barak of "lying to the nation" and "selling out and dismantling" the Jewish state. "The initiative to divide Jerusalem," Olmert told army radio, "is not the fruit of American pressure, but the fruit of Barak's own capitulation."
Israelis, especially on the right, have not forgotten that Olmert appeared in Barak's campaign commercials in the 1999 election stating categorically that "Barak will not divide Jerusalem." Commentators are now suggesting that the mayor, who still aspires to lead the Likud and the nation, is seizing on the Jerusalem issue to rehabilitate himself with his own constituency.
Leading rabbis, not all of them hawks, have rallied to the Temple Mount cause. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau insisted that no Jew had a right to make concessions on the Temple Mount.
"We have come here," he said, "not by the merits of our strength, but by the strength of our merits, the first of which is the Temple Mount." The Jewish Temples of Solomon and Herod were there long before Islam existed.
Meimad, the dovish branch of religious Zionism, is also wavering. Its founder, Rabbi Yehuda Amitai, came out this week against both the Temple Mount concession and Barak's revived "secular revolution."
Although he is making no effort to pull Meimad's political leader, Rabbi Michael Melchior, out of the Barak coalition, Amitai warned: "A government ready to give up the Temple Mount and add to that a secular revolution will turn the fight with the settlers into a religious war, a war over Judaism."
In fact, the Temple Mount has been under Muslim management since Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered his paratroops to lower the Magen David flag they raised over the conquered Al Aqsa mosque during the 1967 war. Israel retained security supervision but has gradually ceded effective control of everything else to the Palestinian-appointed Muslim authorities.
Yasser Arafat is now demanding sovereignty. If Barak is to sell an agreement, he will have to fudge that issue, making a distinction between de facto and de jure control. Israelis might buy that, but would the Palestinians?