While Shiites and Sunnis kill each other in Syria, an even more dangerous religious war could soon explode in Jerusalem, involving Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
I refer to the mounting Israeli-Arab tensions over control of the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, as Muslims call it, in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is Judaism’s holiest site and the third holiest for Islam. “The Temple Mount is a powder keg, and arsonists have the upper hand,” blared a Wednesday headline in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
The mount is so sensitive — as the site of Solomon’s temple and the rock from which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven — that Israeli leaders left it under Palestinian and Jordanian control after they captured the Old City in 1967.
Yet, at a time when the Mideast is in flames, right-wing Israelis, including Cabinet officials and parliament members, are agitating to change the Temple Mount’s status. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the status quo will remain, but Palestinians don’t believe him, as religious provocateurs press their case.
The tension threatens to spark another Palestinian uprising — individual terrorist acts against Jews are multiplying. The issue has become a rallying cry for Palestinian radicals, including Hamas. It is also shaking Israel’s relations with key Arab allies, such as Jordan, and undermining Israeli hopes for new cooperation with moderate Sunni states in the fight against the Islamic State.
In the worst case — a scenario that keeps Israeli intelligence chiefs awake — a Temple Mount explosion could put Israel at odds with the entire Muslim world. The national struggle between Israelis and Palestinians could shift into a wider Arab-Jewish religious war.
What’s so surprising is that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate this far.
After all, the immediate issue — whether Jews should be allowed to pray on the Mount, which the Israeli government doesn’t permit for security reasons — is hardly the main problem confronting Israelis.
A majority of the rabbinical establishment, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, opposes prayer there for both religious and security reasons, while 56 percent of the public, according to polls, says Jewish prayer there should be restricted.
Israeli analysts point out that it is the Western (“wailing”) Wall of the Temple Mount, where they pray freely, that has long been considered the most sacred site by most Jews, not the Temple Mount.
More to the point, the Israelis pushing for the “religious freedom” to pray on the holy site really want something else.
Read the websites of groups such as the Temple Institute (whose former head, Yehuda Glick, just survived a Palestinian assassination attempt) and you see that the goal is to rebuild a “third” temple on the locale of the second one, which was destroyed under the Romans. That would mean pushing Palestinians off the Mount.
“Uri Ariel (the Israeli minister of housing and construction) is praying openly on the Temple Mount and says on TV he’d be delighted to rebuild the temple,” says Danny Seidemann, a leading Israeli expert on Jerusalem. Right-wing Knesset members are pushing for new laws permitting “religious freedom” on the mount, even as an increasing number of activists visit the site. This has meant a growing police presence, and violent opposition from organized Palestinian groups.
Meantime, Temple Mounters are urged on by U.S. Christian fundamentalists, who visit Jerusalem in droves. These groups believe the building of the third temple will lead to Armageddon, in which Jews will battle Arabs to the finish while Christian believers are “lifted up” to heaven. Christian groups snap up books such as “Ready to Rebuild” by the Revs. Randall Price and Thomas Ice — available at the Tel Aviv airport bookstore — which contains detailed architectural drawings for a third temple, as they head for the site.
What worries Israeli security officials is where such agitation can lead. In 1984, intelligence agents accidentally discovered a well-organized plot by radical Jewish activists to blow up the Dome of the Rock in hopes of rebuilding the temple. Many similar but less organized plots have been thwarted by Israeli intelligence since.
“Blowing up the Dome of the Rock,” said former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon in the gripping documentary “The Gatekeepers,” “could lead to total war by all the Islamic states — not just the Arab states, not just Iran, Indonesia too — against the State of Israel.”
While the second Palestinian intifada was sparked by a visit by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to the mount in 2000, continued visits by Israeli ministers this time could lead to something far grimmer.
No doubt that’s why hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called fellow ministers “stupid” for pushing the prayer issue now (would that Netanyahu was as blunt). “I think it’s the pursuit of cheap and easy publicity and a somewhat cynical exploitation of the complicated political situation,” Lieberman told Israel Radio. “Increasing the friction won’t bring security.”
Let’s hope, for the sake of Israel, the region, and the world, that the Temple Mounters get the message — before Armageddon starts