THE ISSUE of Jewish access to Jerusalem's Temple Mount moved higher up the political agenda during the past month. When Israeli troops liberated the Old City in 1967, the government chose not to eject Muslims from the Mount, Judaism's most holy site, as a goodwill gesture. Over the years since, Jews (and Christians) have been forbidden by the resident Islamic authority, the Wakf, to pray there, while Israeli governments have not pushed the issue for fear of triggering an Islamic backlash.
While not all observant Jews would pray on the Temple Mount if they could, a growing movement has been agitating to be allowed to do so (most recently, during the July 25 Tisha B'Av fast, which marks tragedies in Jewish history including the destruction of both Temples). Around 10 years ago, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made a ruling identifying certain areas on the Temple Mount on which it was permissible for Jews to be present. Previous rabbinical rulings had maintained that Jews should not go onto the Mount at all, because it was not clear where the actual Temple and its Holy of Holies had been located.
The traditionally Jordanian-appointed Islamic Wakf was sidelined in 1994 by one installed by Yasser Arafat, as part of the PLO chief's scheme to tighten control over Arab Jerusalemites in the run-up to the Palestinian battle for Jerusalem.
In July, the new government said the PLO was operating the Temple Mount authority as a Palestinian Authority (PA) institution, in contravention of Israeli law and agreements signed between the two sides, which prohibit PLO/PA activity within Jerusalem. The PLO was ordered to comply, or face closure of the "Religious Affairs" offices as well as three other establishments operating illegally - Orient House, the PA Ministry of Education and Bureau of Statistics.
PLO "Minister of Jerusalem Affairs" Faisal Husseini in turn accused Israel of contravening agreements: "The Israelis have many violations of the peace accords. They can say Jerusalem is ours, non-negotiable and can not be spoken about. And then they can say goodbye to the peace. There will be no peace with the Palestinians, the neighbours, and we can return to the days of war." (Army Radio, July 12).
Representing a strong religious constituency, the government's interest in the site of the Temple goes beyond PLO violations there. While not mentioning the Mount by name, the Likud-led coalition's published policy guidelines state that: "The government will make prayer arrangements forJews at holy sites in accordance to the guidelines of religious law".
Alert to the sensitivities surrounding religious sites, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is moving cautiously in this regard, while activists attempt to nudge the government ahead.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman had voiced his support for allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. The minister reportedly said he would provide the necessary legal support and legislation to permit Jewish prayer there.
Around the same time, Yehuda Etzion, a leader in the ongoing battle to permit Jewish prayer on the Mount, made public a letter written by Netanyahu several months ago, in which the then opposition leader expressed views favouring an arrangement to allow Jewish prayer at the site.
Netanyahu wrote: "The right of the Jewish people to its Holy Place, the Temple Mount, cannot be questioned. I believe it is necessary to arrange for Jewish prayer at the site, especially given that we permit freedom of worship to all the religions in Jerusalem. Clearly, the matter must be dealt with the sensitivity it deserves. I believe we can do this properly, when we return to govern the country."
Sixty days into the new administration, those to whom the site holds deep historic and religious significance, are watching closely.
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