Recent developments in Jerusalem pose a threat to the stability of the city and to the region. The world saw a preview over the recent Jewish holidays, when activists challenged the Israeli-imposed ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif. Sensitivities at the site tend to peak during any holiday season; however, these latest challenges cannot be dismissed as routine or benign. The radicalization in the political discourse in Israel and the growing power of an emboldened group of Israeli activists focused on the Temple Mount are today coalescing into concrete initiatives that aspire to alter the status quo at the site for the first time since 1967. With Israeli elections approaching, the temptation of right-wing politicians to pander to Temple Mount activists will grow. In parallel, as the radicalization trend within Israel continues a settler-inspired "price tag" incident at the site becomes increasingly likely.
The site at the center of this brewing crisis is revered in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, site of the ancient first and second Jewish Temples. For Muslims, since 705 AD the same spot has been home to the third holiest site in Islam, al Aqsa Mosque. For some dispensationalist Christians, restoration of Jewish contol over the site is an essential component in bringing about the "end of days."
Israel captured the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif on June 7, 1967, at the height of the 1967 War. Arriving on the scene, legendary Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan spotted Israeli flags flying over the Mount and swiftly ordered them removed, reportedly stating: We don't need a holy war.
Dayan's order reflected his visceral understanding of the implications of Israeli control over this sensitive, contested site, as did his decision to leave a large degree of authority -- including control of all but one of the gates to the Mount -- in the hands of Islamic authorities, known as the Waqf. This same understanding led Israeli courts from the outset to interpret Israel's first post-1967 war piece of legislation, the Law for the Protection of Holy Sites, as making the exercise of religious freedoms subordinate to considerations like public safety and security. All Israeli governments, backed by the court, have subsequently prohibited Jewish prayer on the Mount -- a prohibition that is also consistent with the predominant interpretations of Jewish rabbinic law.
A few Jewish activists challenged the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif status quo from the start. They aspired to turn the esplanade into a site of Jewish worship, often belittling or denying the Muslim attachments to the site, and with some among them speaking openly of their desire to erase the mosques at the site and replace them with the third Jewish temple. They launched perennially unsuccessful appeals to the court demanding the right to pray on the Mount. Over time, they made inroads into mainstream Israeli society by focusing on issues that appear politically innocent -- like protecting Jewish artifacts at the site.
Their cause was aided by the phenomenon in the Arab and Muslims worlds of "Temple Mount denial." Former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat denied any Jewish connection to the Mount. Others portray Jews as usurpers on the Mount, with no genuine attachments. Muslim extremists regularly claim that Israel is seeking to destroy al-Haram al-Sharif. The result is a vicious cycle, with the discourse ceded to extremes on both sides.
And not to be left out, extreme elements among (mainly) American evangelical Christians have increasingly targeted the Muslim presence on the Mount, as part of a dispensationalist agenda, which includes replacing the mosques there with the Third Temple.
The Temple Mount movement has grown today into a cluster of organizations that boast thousands of supporters, Jews and Christians, in Israel and around the world. As the ideological goalposts in Israel have moved to the right, the Israeli government has contributed to the movement's efforts -- evidenced by the ministry of education's August 2012 announcement that 30,000 Israeli pupils had recently visited the Mount as part of its controversial "National Heritage Project," something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The emboldening of the Temple Mount activists was on stark throughout the summer of 2012, with events peaking during the weeklong Jewish Sukkot Festival. Temple Mount activists, including Knesset members, engaged in almost daily provocations, leading to clashes. Accusations were bandied about equating the ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount to the denial of Jewish religious freedoms in the Soviet Union, comparing those denied the right to pray on the Mount to Jewish martyrs of the Middle Ages, and implying that the government has adopted a Nazi policy by making the Mount "Judenrein."
This emboldened activism comes in tandem with the emergence, for the first time, of a clear and serious political agenda: to force a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. The agenda has two prongs: legislation that would compel the government to permit Jewish prayer at the site, security concerns notwithstanding, and the promotion of a joint (or split) Jewish-Muslim control of the site, modeled on the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in Hebron.
The legislation in question enjoys support from senior members of Netanyahu's coalition and will likely be a factor in Likud party primaries, the general elections, and in the next Knesset. The campaign for more "equitable" arrangements on the Mount may find broad traction, based on the argument that this is a simple matter of fairness that everyone should support, regardless of religiosity or political views -- as if diminishing Islamic authority over the Mount for the first time since the Crusades is nothing more than a natural course of events, and that doing otherwise is intrinsically anti-Semitic.
There is ample historical evidence to show that the eruption of violence in Jerusalem is sparked by threats, real or imagined, to sacred space. Tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif -- a site that is the focus of Muslim fears and longing around the world -- would clearly fall into this category. Modeling arrangements at the site after those in place at the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- the place where Israeli-Palestinians interactions are most toxic -- is virtually guaranteed to turn relations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem into the kind of violent, zero-sum interactions that characterize Hebron.
Moreover, developments related to the Temple Mount are occurring against the backdrop of intensive settler-related activities that aspire to establish a neo-Biblical zone of exclusionary Jewish hegemony in and around the Old City. Together, these trends threaten to transform a complicated but solvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious war.
Finally, what transpires at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al Sharif will spill over into the region and beyond -- because what happens in Jerusalem doesn't stay in Jerusalem. It could drive emerging forces in the Arab world to positions ever more hostile to Israel and the West, and embolden the extremes. Already, issues surrounding the site have emerged as a fault line within the Arab world. In post-Mubarak Egypt, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo under the banner: "The liberation of Cairo requires the liberation of Jerusalem." In the run-up to Egyptian elections, some Egyptian nationalists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of promoting Al Quds as their capital. A debate is raging within the Arab world over whether Muslims should visit al-Haram al-Sharif while it is under occupation. Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah, have suggested, offering compelling reasons, that Israeli actions related to the site are sowing regional instability.
The potential destabilizing impact of tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, wisely laid down by Moshe Dayan in 1967, cannot be overstated. Accordingly, it is wise to recall the Talmudic aphorism: "Jerusalem was destroyed because it was ruled by [an overly rigorous application of] the rule of Torah."
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 17/10/2012
-Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.