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It is forbidden for Jews to ascend the Temple Mount, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ruled yesterday - not only because it violates Jewish law, but also because "it is a kind of provocation of the nations of the world, which is liable to lead to bloodshed."

Elyashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian, or non-Hasidic, branch of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, made the statement at his Jerusalem home during a meeting with President Shimon Peres. The president had asked him to speak out publicly on the issue to help reduce the Jewish-Muslim tensions that have marred the city over the last few days.

"Israel has many challenges, and one of them is preventing the tension in Jerusalem from deteriorating into a religious war," explained Peres, who requested the meeting with the 99-year-old rabbi.

Elyashiv's position is not new; he has always objected to Jews ascending the Temple Mount on religious grounds. Two and a half years ago, when a group of rightist rabbis made a demonstrative visit to the mount, the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne'eman, Elyashiv's mouthpiece, published a vicious attack that termed them "idol worshipers," among other epithets.

This is the first time Elyashiv has met with the president since becoming leader of the Lithuanian community nine years ago. The two men spoke for 15 minutes and one person present said the normally severe rabbi greeted Peres warmly and wished him long life. Peres said he attaches great importance to improving relations between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

The two also discussed the Iranian threat, and Elyashiv said he views national unity as very important.

Dr. Benny Brown of Hebrew University's Jewish studies department noted that since becoming president, Peres has cultivated ties with ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and especially Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of both the Shas party and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community.