Prime Minister's Gift Omits Muslim Holy Sites, Inflaming Passions

This week in Haaretz, 1997.

As the new year of 1997 dawned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Haifa to visit the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Israel, Archbishop Maximos Salloum. Netanyahu gave the archbishop a silver engraving of the Old City of Jerusalem and wished him a happy new year.

Soon, a rumor spread that the gift lacked several key elements. Haaretz reporter Joseph Algazi called the archbishop, who acknowledged that the Muslim holy places, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, did not appear on the engraving. Instead there was "an approximation of the Second Temple," a Jewish holy site.

"What could I have done, returned the present to the prime minister? I respect all people and all religions. The question of why the prime minister decided to give me such a gift should be asked of him, not me," the archbishop told Haaretz.

The office of the prime minister's media adviser also confirmed the report and said that the prime minister's bureau had acquired several copies of the same engraving.

"We didn't notice that the Al Aqsa mosque was missing," somebody from the office said. "Of course there was no intent on our part to insult any part of the population, and this was the result of carelessness. It was a mistake. If anyone's feelings were hurt, we apologize."

But the Arab public, still smarting from the opening of the Western Wall tunnels months earlier, were not mollified. The spokesman of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the vice mayor of Umm al-Fahm, Sheikh Hashem Abed al Rahman, told Algazi that "the gift Netanyahu offered was a serious provocation of the feelings of all Muslims around the world. It was like a declaration of war on the entire Muslim world."

"The Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, is one of the three holiest places in Islam," Rahman added, using the Muslim name for the Temple Mount. He pointed out that any plan to erase the mosques in Jerusalem would cause a huge disaster, while only preservation of the status quo would serve peace.

At an Islamic conference held in Pakistan in 1997, Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat displayed a picture of the Temple Mount area which showed the Temple in place of the mosques.

Reporter Uzi Benziman wrote in Haaretz that the prevailing wisdom was that the picture was a version of the engraving given to the archbishop by Netanyahu. "Despite the apology, the picture of the empty Temple Mount landscape found its way to Arafat, and he knew how to make use of it at the conference," Benziman wrote.

Arafat claimed that Israel was the source of the picture and that it "expressed the malicious intentions of the Netanyahu government to uproot the Muslim presence in the holy city and Judaize the Haram al-Sharif completely."

"Whether or not the story is accurate," Benziman wrote, "there is no doubt that Arafat chose to incite the Muslim world over Jerusalem. After all, he knows that the Netanyahu government has no plans to demolish the mosques. He knows that every Israeli government, including the present one, prevents Jews from praying on the site of the Temple Mount, and that they are aided in this by a ruling of the Chief Rabbinate. He knows that the present government follows in the footsteps of its predecessors and honors the arrangements made by Moshe Dayan in 1967 for the Muslim religious authorities' total administrative autonomy over the Temple Mount."

Earlier this month, Haaretz's Gili Cohen reported that the Army rabbinate had circulated a Hanukkah pamphlet which included a montage of the Western Wall plaza with the Dome of the Rock heavily clouded over in the background.

"When I received these materials from the brigade rabbi, something about the picture looked strange," a reserve duty officer told Cohen. The army spokesman responded that "the article's regrettable claims are ridiculous and tendentious. In the slide under discussion there is an illustration of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period. As was explained to the reporter, the Dome of the Rock did not exist at this time. And so there was no need for it to appear in the picture." (Lital Levin )