Clash of faiths between Jews, Muslims leaves little room for negotiation

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Jeffrey Weiss / The Dallas Morning News

This week, Muslims celebrate the anniversary of their holiest prophet's trip to heaven, a night journey that tradition says started on a Jerusalem hill. Three weeks ago, most Jews spent part of their year's most solemn worship remembering the temple they believe once stood on the same spot of Jerusalem soil.

Between those two holidays, Israel has been rocked by violence, death and destruction, partly because of the competing hallowed visions of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary).

Jerusalem was the rock on which negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis foundered in July. The sacred heart of the city is the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary – small enough to fit on top of Terminal A at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Not everyone on either side believes that their position reflects God's will, experts say. But if politics is the art of compromise, religion is the search for the unconditional. Both sides say that agreement about Jerusalem and the sacred hill must be in a final peace accord. But the influence that a rigidly religious perspective exerts on either side defines the limits of negotiation.

"Politics in the Middle East is driven by religion," said Osama Abdallah, a Palestinian who is the chairman of the board of the Islamic Association of North Texas. "The Jews are saying, 'This is our Holy Land; God promised it to us.' Muslims are saying, 'This is Haram al-Sharif; this is our holy site.' This is the issue that will make or break [the negotiation]."

Until the issue of Jerusalem, negotiators had generally been able to ease faith issues to the side, said David Makovsky, former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and senior fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

"The art, all these years, was to make sure it remained an Arab-Israeli conflict rather than a Muslim-Jewish conflict," he said. "If it becomes a religious conflict, it becomes a conflict of absolutes."

If religious opposition to negotiation carries the day, some experts say, that means more violence and a greater risk of a larger war that could pull in the United States, affect oil prices or simply make the world a more dangerous place.

The tight bond between faith and public policy was illustrated in recent news reports:

In Jerusalem, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon told an international gathering of some 4,000 evangelical Christians that "the land of Israel is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, but it was promised by God only to the Jews."

In the al-Aqsa Mosque, atop the Haram al-Sharif, Imam Muhammad Hussein said that the souls of the Palestinian shahidim – martyrs – hover over the mosque, and he called upon all Muslims to follow their example.

The current troubles began after Mr. Sharon and a large security force visited Temple Mount on Sept. 28 in a show of Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians took the visit as provocative enough to respond with violence – which the Israelis have met in kind, day after deadly day.

Sacred place

Both sides agree that something important happened long ago on this small hill.

For Jews and Christians, this is where the Bible says Abraham offered Isaac, the miracle son of his old age, to God as a sacrifice. Generations later, Solomon built God's Temple on the same spot. The temple was destroyed in 586 B.C., rebuilt about 70 years later and destroyed again in A.D. 70. Only the western wall of an outer enclosure survived – the so-called Wailing or Western Wall.

Orthodox tradition holds that the temple will be rebuilt on the original site – where the mosque now stands – in the days of the messiah. Synagogues all over the world are built so that worshipers face the ancient temple site.

For Muslims, the sacrifice offered by Abraham was of Ishmael, a different son, on a different hill. So the Muslim focus on Jerusalem starts with Mohammed, the final prophet of Islam, who lived from A.D. 570 to 632. The Koran says: "Glory to Allah who did take his servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque to the Precincts we did bless in order that we might show him some of our signs."

According to Muslim tradition, this verse describes a trip from Mecca (the Sacred Mosque) to Jerusalem (the Farthest Mosque) and then to heaven. The place of departure: Mount Moriah, where the temple once stood. And the Western Wall is where the prophet tethered his winged beast before the journey.

Muslims revere David, Solomon and Jesus as prophets – all linked to Jerusalem. Mohammed originally ordered Muslims to pray toward Jerusalem before shifting to Mecca. And Muslims had places of worship built atop the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif not long after Mohammed's death.

Both sides can cite history as why they don't trust the other to control their holy sites.

The Old City is a walled warren of winding streets that would fit inside Fair Park and leave plenty of room for parking. The sacred hill is on the eastern side. Control of the city and the central site has shifted over the centuries. From 1948 to 1967, it was under Jordanian control and Jews were not allowed to visit the Western Wall or the Temple Mount.

After the Arab invasion of Israel in 1967 that ended with the Israeli army taking control of Jerusalem, the West Bank and other territory, Jews once again gained access to the Wall. Daily control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has been in Muslim hands ever since, although as the Israelis have demonstrated during the current troubles, the government can and does limit Muslim access.

"No Palestinian leader would have any support for a position that would not entail Palestinian and Muslim control over the Haram," said Dr. Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago and an adviser to the Palestinian delegations during negotiations in the early 1990s.

Strong voices

On both sides, stridently religious voices may have more sway than their numbers would indicate.

On the Israeli side, Orthodox Jews make up a relatively small percentage of the population but control politically important seats in the Knesset. That has made it hard for the government to make agreements that these parties oppose – such as a compromise about Jerusalem.

For the Palestinians, the mosques and the imams form an unusually effective network to get a particular message out. And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is looking over his shoulder at uncompromising Muslim factions among the Palestinians and in Muslim communities around the world.

Palestinians frustrated with the pace of negotiation are more open to the militant call of overtly religious groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, said Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

And even if the allegiance to Jerusalem is more nationalism than faith for many Palestinians, "that's a distinction without a difference," he said. "If nationalism has a red line somewhere, it can be as firm as religiosity."

But where God seems to speak so differently to two competing groups, they'll have to trust that the other side will keep its parts of the bargain. And trust is in short supply between Israelis and Palestinians these days, Mr. Ibish said.

"I think after their respective experiences, Jews on the one side and Muslims on the other side – as well as Palestinian Christians – don't trust each other as custodians of their respective holy places," he said. "There is one of the key ways in which religion and politics mesh."