May 17, 2013
This week a senior official from the Foreign Ministry's Jordan desk was asked who was in charge of the Temple Mount. Without hesitating, the official said: The de facto sovereign of the Temple Mount is not the State of Israel but rather the Kingdom of Jordan, which has effective rule there.
by Nadav Shragai
Things are being hidden on the Temple Mount, and one does not need to be a genius to understand that. It was enough to watch the body language of the government's representatives who attended last week's meeting of the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee to see that things the state would prefer not be visible to the eye were going on.
MK Miri Regev, the committee chairwoman, asked for a discussion about "the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount" in a somewhat na´ve attempt to open a crack in the prohibition against Jewish prayer there, which has been in effect for many years. The state sent its best "forces" to defend the status quo on the Mount and explain that any change could bring blood, fire, pillars of smoke and old-new holy wars upon us. Advocates of the Temple Mount described the injustice being perpetrated there and the feeling of humiliation, together with the basic laws that were being violated. But suddenly the meeting, which was quite ordinary in character, veered from its familiar path. Surprise followed surprise -- and denials were quick to follow.
Elhanan Glatt, the director-general of the Religious Services Ministry, dropped a bombshell, announcing to the members of the committee: "By order of Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan," that the ministry intended to draft amendments that would enable Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and submit them for the cabinet's approval." Only 90 seconds passed from that moment to the denial that arrived almost at the speed of light, evidently because of intervention from the Prime Minister's Office.
What exactly went on there behind the scenes? Here is one possible explanation: Ben-Dahan wants to change the situation on the Temple Mount. Before he was appointed to his position, Ben-Dahan participated in the activities of one of the Temple Mount groups. Now, as deputy religious services minister and the official in charge of the ministry, he is trying to change things. Glatt, who served until recently as the chief executive of the Center for Bnei Akiva Yeshivot, is trying, too. So is his former boss, the current chief executive of the center, Rabbi Haim Drukman, who recently made several statements supporting Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. It is possible that Glatt was sent to send up a trial balloon and check the responses.
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was in the opposition, promised in writing that when he became prime minister he would work to regularize Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. But, as happened to another Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, who also promised as a member of the opposition to regularize Jewish prayer there, Netanyahu discovered, when he became prime minister, that all the defense officials firmly rejected the institution of any such amendments.
Until last week, the last time anyone pronounced the forbidden phrase "amendments for the regularization of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount" was during the 1980s. Judge Ruth Orr acquitted a group of members of the Betar movement who had prayed on the Temple Mount. When then-Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Rafael (National Religious Party) toyed with the idea, the Prime Minister's Office blocked him, too.
Jordan's two secrets
The second surprise that awaited the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee also came from the official level: The deputy director of the Jordanian Department at the Foreign Ministry, Frieda Yovel. When MK Miri Regev asked Yovel who was in charge of the Temple Mount, Yovel answered without hesitation that the de facto sovereign of the Temple Mount was not the State of Israel but rather the Kingdom of Jordan, which ruled there. In this case, too, no more than a minute passed before Jerusalem District Police Chief Yossi Pariente, who was sitting beside Frieda Yovel, hurried to correct her: The State of Israel, and not Jordan, had sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
But despite everything, Yovel's imprecise statement concealed an array of formal, and unofficial, understandings with Jordan. While Paragraph 9 of the peace treaty with the Hashemite kingdom does not abrogate Israel's sovereignty over the Temple Mount, it grants recognition to the status Jordan has acquired there since 1967: control over the mechanism of the Jordanian wakf, an extension of the Religious Affairs and Trusts Ministry, which has been in charge of religious affairs there for 46 years. In Paragraph 9, Israel also promises Jordan that when a permanent treaty is signed with the Arab states, Israel will recognize Jordan's pre-eminence among the Arab agencies on the Temple Mount.
Even though a permanent treaty has been long in coming, Israel has put the cart before the horse and is doing almost everything it can to elevate Jordan's status on the Temple Mount even now, and not out of any particular fondness for Jordan. Israeli officials believe that the way to deal with the rising popularity and influence of radical elements such as the Islamic Movement in Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood on the Temple Mount is by strengthening Jordan's position there. If Jordan is strong on the Temple Mount, they believe, the other elements will be weak.
That is how Jordan is reaping the fruits of the peace treaty that it signed with Israel and the pre-eminent status it was promised there among the Arab states, even though there is no permanent treaty with other Arab states. Ariel Sharon, as prime minister, entrusted the reconstruction of the shaky eastern and southern walls of the Temple Mount to Jordan.
A few years ago, Netanyahu acceded to Jordan's demand to freeze construction of the permanent Mugrabi Bridge that was supposed to replace the dirt path leading up to Mugrabi Gate. Now, far from the public eye, Israel and Jordan cooperated (together with the United States) in drafting two agreements that were signed over the past few months.
The first agreement is between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, both of which had fought for years for status and control over the holy site. At one point during the peak of the conflict, PA officials threw the "Jordanian" mufti out of his office on the Temple Mount and replaced him with one of their own. Since then, no love has been lost between these two contenders for supremacy on the Temple Mount. A mufti came and a mufti went, and now another Jordanian mufti serves in the position.
The agreement between the two rivals that is currently taking shape was created following the U.N.'s recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an observer state. The Palestinians claimed that they represented Islam's holy sites in Jerusalem in UNESCO. Jordan claimed that the position belonged to it. The agreement between them is a compromise in which one can benefit without loss to the other.
The agreement regularizes the status quo that exists on the Temple Mount today. It stipulates that King Abdullah of Jordan will continue serving as the guardian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and will supervise the wakf and its property in accordance with Jordanian law, and that the Palestinians recognize this. On the other hand, Paragraph 3.1 of the agreement stipulates that "the Government of the State of Palestine, as the expression of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, shall have the right to exercise sovereignty over all parts of its territory, including Jerusalem."
The second agreement, about which the Israeli public has heard next to nothing of, is a diplomatic understanding between the U.S., Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and UNESCO. UNESCO agreed to remove five sharply worded resolutions by Arab countries condemning Israel from its agenda. In exchange, Israel agreed to allow a delegation of the organization to visit Jerusalem's Old City and supervise various renovation projects and reconstruction work being done between the walls, but not on the Temple Mount.
Controversy among the rabbis
Along with all this, another major player in the shaping of the situation on the Temple Mount has also been active: the Temple Mount Faithful, whose circles are expanding and which never ceases its efforts to exercise its right to pray on the Temple Mount, despite the government's prohibition. Often, the ones trying to fulfill that right are young people who pretend to be talking on their cellular telephones, but are actually murmuring prayers. Sometimes they are veteran activists who prostrate themselves undetected. At other times, Jews can be seen on the Temple Mount looking heavenward in significant silence. "We pray in our hearts," they say.
In recent months, Dr. Menahem Ben-Yashar, 87, was arrested when he tried to pray there. So were Elyashiv Cherlow, the son of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, and Yehuda Liebman, a brigade commander in the reserves. Yehuda Glick, who heads the Temple Mount movements' coalition, was prevented from entering the Mount for many months, and police prevented his daughter from going up to the Temple Mount on her wedding day despite pressure from high-ranking ministers. Today, Glick goes up to the Temple Mount again as a tour guide, but behind the many attempts to worship there is a powerful dispute in religious law between rabbis who allow entry to the Temple Mount in our times and those who forbid it.
After the Six-Day War, there was an almost complete consensus between the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and religious Zionist rabbis regarding the prohibition against Jews entering the Temple Mount. The Chief Rabbinate even placed a sign at the entrance to the Mount warning Jews that they must not pass the gates for fear of "karet" (death caused by divine intervention), the punishment for those who entered sacred sites in violation of religious law.
The reason for the prohibition is that all Jews are considered to carry the ritual impurity derived from touching a corpse and the lack of a red heifer, whose ashes were used to purify those with such impurity in Temple times. But mostly, what keeps the prohibition in force is the lack of knowledge of the precise location of the Temple and the Holy of Holies. The rabbis who forbade entry to the Temple Mount feared that Jews who went there might tread on these sacred, and forbidden, sites.
They claimed that since it was impossible to distinguish between the areas where Jews may go (Herod's additions) and the forbidden ones (the sacred precincts), entry to the entire area was forbidden. The rabbis who permitted entry believed that they could demarcate the permitted areas and even supervise to make sure that the public remained inside them.
Over the past 20 years, the number of religious-Zionist rabbis who allow entry to the Temple Mount, subject to certain religious rules, has increased. Nationalist Muslim radicalism, the damage to the antiquities on the Temple Mount and the sweeping Muslim denial that the Temple ever existed and of the Jewish relationship to the Mount are among the reasons for this.
At first, it was a few hundred rabbis from Judea and Samaria. But later, rabbis such as Yuval Cherlow of Petach Tikva, Zephaniah Drori of Kiryat Shmona, Drukman and Yaakov Medan of Alon Shvut joined them. Other centrist rabbis, such as David Stav and Shlomo Aviner, maintain the prohibition. One of the things they disagreed about was the position of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the rabbi and teacher of the members of Gush Emunim, who died about 30 years ago. Until recently, the prevailing opinion was that he had forbidden Jews to enter the Temple Mount in our day. Rabbis who refrain from going there do so based on this view. But two weeks ago, Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, the former chief rabbi of Haifa and a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, wrote a letter conveying a different message. Cohen said that in several conversations he had with Kook, the latter told him that he supported Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in our day as long as the Chief Rabbinate was the agency that permitted it.
The major player: the police
These three recent developments -- the initiative by the Religious Services Ministry to draft amendments allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount; the agreements and understandings that strengthen Jordan's status there; and the rising number of attempts by the Temple Mount groups to exercise their right to worship on the Temple Mount, for which support by rabbis is increasing -- have brought tensions on the Mount to new heights. Last week, police detained the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, for questioning on suspicion of having been involved in rioting started by Muslims there. On the other hand, young Jews who try to pray on the Mount are arrested all the time.
Jordan, to whom Israel made formal and unofficial promises regarding its status on the Temple Mount, is alert to what is going on. Last week the Jordanian parliament ratified, by a large majority, a decision to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman and recall the Jordanian ambassador from Ramat Gan. The pretext: the measures Israel allegedly took on the Temple Mount and the "settlers who enter Al-Aqsa mosque every day." The decision is not binding because King Abdullah is not expected to ratify it, but it shows that Jordan is upset by the Temple Mount groups and fears that they will succeed in changing the status quo.
Is there a chance that such pressure will change the situation on the Temple Mount? Everything depends on the major player -- the Israel Police. Although Jerusalem District Police Chief Yossi Pariente said last week that he was only carrying out policy on the Temple Mount, that was only half true, because in the same breath he added that he was glad his recommendations were accepted. No official of the Israeli political echelon would dare order the police to open the Temple Mount to Jewish prayer when the police have made the opposite recommendation.
Still, the chance for change involves creating flexible visiting arrangements for Jews on the Temple Mount, which the police restrict as well. Police officials say that it depends on the willingness of the Temple Mount advocates to accept the customary rules, settle for visiting and give up praying there. As of now, no such understanding between the police and the advocates of the Temple Mount appears likely.