Touching the core:

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In the summer of 2000, barely a month before the Camp David summit, a group of Israelis and Palestinians convened in Europe to discuss the issues of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem. A number of religious leaders also took part. At one point in the discussion, an Islamic cleric let loose with a verbal volley, rife with anti-Semitic imagery, the gist of which was: “You Jews should look for your Temple elsewhere. You have no ties to Harem a-Sharif.”

An embarrassed hush fell over the deliberations. When we broke, one of the senior Palestinians came over and said apologetically: “Do you see the kind of prejudices Chairman Arafat has to deal with in his constituency?”

Two weeks after the Camp David summit, I received a phone call from a senior American negotiator. “I just came from Arafat,” he said. “He really doesn’t think the Temple is there. How do we explain it too him?” It turned out that the barriers to a resolution of the issue of the Temple Mount/Harem a-Sharif were not only in “the constituencies” but in the hearts and minds of the senior decision makers. It also became apparent that the negotiators were singularly unprepared to deal with the volatile and complex issues at hand.

Any attempt to move forward towards a political resolution of the issue of the Mount/Harem requires an analysis of the underlying factors that led to failure in the political talks. I wish to offer a number of tentative observations in this regard:

The Mount/Harem is no mere “real estate”: the site and the symbolism it evokes are the primordial materials of which national consciousness is made. Two mutually incompatible national narratives compete in the same limited sacred space, in the place most important to each party.

In the past, those engaged in the preparatory negotiations concerning the Mount/Harem, were least prone to hear the symbolic “siren call” of the Mount/Harem–and on both sides, those most attuned to its powerful imagery were least prone to dialogue.

In the years prior to Camp David, Jewish claims to the Mount were subsumed in the monolithic claims enunciated by Israel in regard to “a united Jerusalem,” further contributing to the Palestinian failure to fathom the depth and intensity of the Jewish sentiments.

The “creative ideas” for the Mount/Harem often proved to be “gimmicks” that did not disclose a grasp of how the symbolic imagery resonates in each constituency. The Clinton proposals, which envisage a “vertical” differentiation of sovereignty on the Mount/Harem, proved counterproductive, exacerbating rather than allaying irrational fears. An extensive Palestinian popular literature exists, promulgating the baseless fear that the Zionists would emerge from underground shafts and engulf the Mosques. The Clinton proposals inadvertently fell on these irrational fears. Prime Minister Barak’s position that he would not “turn over” sovereignty on the Mount to Palestinians (implying he could turn it over to a third party, who in turn would deliver sovereignty to the Palestinians, as though it were an “assist” in basketball) had little potential popular credibility.

Israeli public opinion perceives the denial of legitimate Jewish claims to the Mount as a litmus test, indicating that the Palestinians have not acquiesced to the legitimacy of Israeli presence anywhere in the Land of Israel.

The Mount/Harem is the quintessential arena in which the extreme elements on both sides attempt to undermine a comprehensive political agreement between the parties. A sustained assault, rhetorical and otherwise, by these extremes, is a given, and requires clear and aggressive crisis-management mechanisms in any future political settlement.

There are established Jewish and Islamic religious traditions that are conducive to compromise. Strong religious/cultural Jewish schools of thought place little stock in physical control of the Mount–provided that the legitimacy of the Jewish narrative and claim is recognized, and that the sanctity of Jewish artifacts is protected from desecration. There is a respected Islamic tradition which recognizes the legitimacy of historic Jewish ties to the Harem, in ways that do not derogate from the depth of the claims of Islam.

It is regrettable that the arrangements on the Mount/Harem have “congealed” around the issue of sovereignty, a term singularly inappropriate to resolving the “clash of narratives.” However, after the Clinton parameters, it is highly unlikely that a settlement of the Mount/Harem will take place without some form of Palestinian sovereignty over the Mount/Harem. The stronger the affirmations of the legitimacy of Jewish ties to the Mount, and the mechanisms for protection of Jewish interests–the stronger the Israeli public willingness will be to cede sovereignty on the Mount to the Palestinians.

The issues involved cannot be solved by either gimmick or obfuscation. At the end of the day, a political settlement will require the courage of two national political leaders attuned to their own national and religious traditions. They need to hammer out of these malleable materials arrangements that will allow each party to maintain its ties to a site sacred to both, in a manner not threatening to the beliefs and interests of the other. The materials exist–and await the political courage necessary to put them in place.

Daniel Seidemann is a lawyer specializing in East Jerusalem issues.

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