Give Them the Temple Mount

If Israel succeeds in imposing on the Palestinian leadership the two concessions that the Palestinian public is unable to accept - the rocket of the international summit will fall on our heads.

The good news is that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognizes that the only way to restore Mahmoud Abbas' stature, which Ariel Sharon stripped from him, is to translate the concept of "political horizon" into practical terms - i.e., into a document of principles for a final status agreement. The bad news is that Israel is sticking to the same basic conceptions that thwarted earlier attempts to deal with the "core issues" of borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.

Just like at the Camp David summit seven years ago, policy-makers today expect that the Palestinians will give up on the issues of the territory on which the settlement blocs are built, the Temple Mount and the right of return. Once more, the language being employed in the country is of a zero-sum game. Palestinian concessions mean an Israeli victory; Israeli concessions mean a Palestinian victory. Except the price may be much higher. The Gaza Strip's fall into the hands of Hamas may only be a "down payment" before the transfer of control over the towns of the West Bank - a mere five minutes from Kfar Sava, as they say - to the government of Hamastan.

The negotiations on the final status agreement between Israel and the PLO (which was also the signatory on behalf of the Palestinians on the Oslo Accords, not the Palestinian Authority), are being held face-to-face, but also with the parties' backs to each other.

At a time when representatives of the two sides are holding talks concerning the sensitive national and religious aspects of their respective ethos, they are keeping a close eye on the right-wing opposition at home. When Ehud Barak conferred with Yasser Arafat at Camp David on the matter of sovereignty over the Temple Mount, he was thinking about his coalition with the religious parties. Arafat was thinking about the reaction of the opponents to Oslo in the territories and about the Muslim world. Abbas, who is significantly weaker, will need to think about what Hamas will do to him if he dares to give in over an issue where the late mythical leader stood his ground.

The international summit being organized by the Bush administration is Abbas' last throw of the dice. In the zero-sum game between him and Hamas, the loss of the bet will mean a victory for the camp that rejects a two-state solution. The only way that Israel and the United States can affect the struggle in the Palestinian camp is to take away the main contentious elements preoccupying the religious extremists - the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem and the problem of the 1948 refugees - and to hand them over to the moderate secularists. On the other hand, if Abbas emerges from the negotiations without sovereignty over the Temple Mount and without Israeli recognition of the issue of the refugees as proposed by the Arab League (an agreed solution on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194) - he might as well stay home.

In December 2000 then president Bill Clinton reached the conclusion that there would not be an Arab partner in a peace agreement without Palestinian or Islamic sovereignty over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Gilad Sher, representing Barak in the meeting at which Clinton presented his plan, wrote in his book "Merhak negia" ("Just Beyond Reach"), that the president suggested that the Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount], including the plaza and the mosques, would constitute Palestinian sovereign territory, and that the Western Wall and its complex would be under Israeli sovereignty. Sher says that during the cabinet discussion on the Clinton plan, Barak told the ministers he was not willing to be a party to such an arrangement, and said: "I have no intention of signing a document that will transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians."

If Barak B intends to adopt the approach of Barak A, he should inform U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that it is all a waste of time and that she should spare what's left of President Bush's prestige.

The continued dispute over the excavations the Palestinians are carrying out in the Temple Mount complex suggests that transfering sovereignty to them is no more than a virtual concession for Israel. An agreement that will include UNESCO supervision over the excavations and free access to the Israelis will improve the situation vis-a-vis this sensitive area. Receiving the prestigious keys to the holy site will bolster the pragmatists among the Palestinians, and will make it easier for them to relinquish their wish to use the keys to homes they left behind in Jaffa.

The rocket of the international summit and the talks on a final status agreement has been launched, and it should not be recalled. If Israel succeeds in imposing on the Palestinian leadership the two concessions that the Palestinian public is unable to accept - the rocket will fall on our heads.