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Israel Just Got a Rare Offer to Defuse Temple Mount Tensions. It Will Most Likely Reject It

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Palestinian protesters react during clashes on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City September 6, 2013.
Palestinian protesters react during clashes on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City September 6, 2013.Credit: Ammar Awad, Reuters

Renewed coordination between Israel and the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount – the Jerusalem Waqf – entails benefits for both sides. However, it is unlikely Israel will respond positively to the offer laid down by the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi, who called on the Israeli government to hold negotiations to restore the status quo that was in place until 2000.

For Israel, coordinating with the Waqf can help calm tensions on the Temple Mount and even prevent violence at the flashpoint site, as well as renewing talks on conservation work and archeological digs there. Thus it would be possible to prevent archeological disasters, like the one that took place in 1999 when the Waqf dug a new entrance to the underground Marwani Prayer Hall (Solomon's Stables). Coordination between the Waqf and Israel's antiquities authority had ceased in 1996, some four years before coordination on security matters was halted, in the wake of the riots at the Western Wall Tunnels following Israel's decision to open them to tourists.

The status quo that prevailed until September 2000 was established with then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan a few days after the end of the Six-Day War, in June 1967. Under the agreement, the Israel Police secured the gates to the compound. The Waqf operated the site, selling non-Muslims tickets to Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other buildings on the site.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, IDF chief Yitzhak Rabin and others touring the Temple Mount following the Six-Day War in 1967.Credit: Ilan Bruner / GPO

The status quo fell apart after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the site in September 2000, which ignited the second intifada. Tourists and Israeli citizens were barred from the Temple Mount until Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi opened the compound for visits in 2003.

'Al Aqsa is the fuel that flames violence '

Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said renewed coordination could also be diplomatically beneficial for Israel, as it would strengthen Jordan's status as the custodian of the Temple Mount, at the expense of Turkey, which is growing stronger and is increasingly demanding a role for itself within Haram al-Sharif – as the mount is known in the Islamic world. Last week, a conference was even held in Istanbul on the need to protect Al-Aqsa which seemed to put Jordan on the defensive.

"Al-Aqsa is the fuel that flames violence on the Palestinian side. It is in Israel's interest to prevent these altercations from erupting by renewing coordination with the Waqf," said Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies who wrote a book about the status quo on the Temple Mount.

A general view shows the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on December 29, 2016.Credit: AFP / Ahmad Gharbli

Coordination on visitations by groups to the site can be done to prevent visitors from breaking local custom while also making sure such groups are not harassed, he said.

According to Dr. Reiter, just the proposal by the Waqf is significant. "This public call is something new, and it is clear it is being voiced with Jordan's authorization... This also indicates their distress, they feel that the police are doing whatever they want, including appeasing the fans of the temple," he said referencing religious Jewish intent on visiting and praying at the site, despite the current status quo.

For the Waqf, renewing coordination would validate its status and the status of Jordan on the Temple Mount and would also see it receive the proceeds from ticket sales to the site. Lack of coordination with Israel makes running the site cumbersome as every small renovation or maintenance work now runs the risk of putting the Islamic trust on a collision course with Jerusalem's municipality, the antiques authority or the police. Coordination with Israel would make running day-to-day operations at the site much easier.

Jewish Israelis and tourists visiting Jerusalem would also stand to gain from the agreement. A number of structures in the Temple Mount are among the oldest and most exquisite monuments in Israel and the site's closure to the general public some 17 years ago dealt a serious blow to tourism and research, as well as the average's Israelis' ability to learn about Jerusalem's full heritage.

But, nonetheless, experts believe Israel will not heed the Waqf's call. The police and the government feel that attempts to quell violence on the Temple Mount are fruitful and now the situation is under relative control. A testimony to this is the fact that the number of Jewish visitors to the site is on the rise as is the size of the different groups they come in with. "Whoever has strength is never too quick to give it up," Reiter says.