As time runs out on both Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak, it appears highly unlikely that an enduring and comprehensive agreement in the Middle East will be achieved. The prospects for peace that seemed so bright just months ago now seem tragically dim. Indeed, they have gone up in smoke, fueled by a lethal mix of political paralysis, diplomatic incompetence and intense violence.
Against this backdrop it is not only unlikely but perhaps even inadvisable to conclude a peace without legs to stand on. Perhaps a period of lowered expectations will allow the parties to proceed anew at a more deliberate pace toward the ultimate goal.
But if and when the parties decide to recommence negotiations in earnest, the subject of the Temple Mount will clearly be at or near the top of the agenda. And here Israeli leaders do their country no service by insisting on retaining sovereignty, especially if they are only playing a semantic game and are prepared to cede “control.” Nor, for that matter, do American Jews do Israel any service by declaring, as a recent advertisement proclaimed, that “Israel must not surrender Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount.”
Those who oppose ceding Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount suffer from a dearth of logic and historical perspective. Why would surrendering Israeli sovereignty over it constitute such a dramatic act? After all, control of the Temple Mount has been in the hands of Muslims since the Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in 638 C.E. Moreover, in the brief period of Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount (since 1967), its actual administration, apart from external security, has been in the hands of officials of the Muslim religious trust known as the Waqf. Therefore, handing over “sovereignty” of the Temple Mount (minus the Western Wall) would hardly alter the status quo. The site would continue to function, as it has for centuries, as a venue for daily Muslim worship.
This point becomes even clearer when we recognize that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews today will not set foot on the Temple Mount for fear that they will defile the site on which the Holy Temple once stood. Some religious scholars, most notably the late Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, have tried to argue that there are portions of the Temple Mount where observant Jews can set foot and pray without defiling it. But these opinions remain, at least as of today, in the minority.
In fact, the true religious significance of the Temple Mount is not in the present, but rather in the days of the Messiah when, according to tradition, the Holy Temple will be rebuilt. It seems reasonable to assume that any Messiah worth his mettle will be able to resolve the status of this contested space quite definitively. In the meantime, Israel should simply affirm the status quo, particularly if doing so can fulfill the religious imperative of saving lives (pikuach nefesh).
What makes this difficult is that the Temple Mount is not just a holy site but a leading symbol of Israeli national pride. To this day, the image of Israeli soldiers capturing the Western Wall in 1967 fills many Jews with deep pride. But this intense bond to the Temple Mount per se is a rather recent phenomenon.
True, Jerusalem was the center of spiritual yearning for Diaspora Jews throughout their long history. But in the more recent annals of Zionism, the focus of leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann was almost never on the sacred sites of the ancient capital. Rather, they sought to build new cities and fortify unpopulated frontier outposts. Indeed, their vision of Zionism was to transform the collectivity of Jews from a cerebral religion into a vibrant nation.
The 1967 war had a dramatic effect on this vision, allowing religious symbols such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount to merge into a revived Israeli nationalism. But much has happened to Israel since 1967. It has become an even more mature country with a robust democracy, economy, culture, and military. And so we must ask: Is the symbolic value of “sovereignty” over the Temple Mount necessary to validate the existence of Israel?
Part of what informs this question is the sense that the Temple Mount has become over time the source of a fetishized adulation on both Muslim and Jewish sides of the ledger. The late Israeli thinker, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, himself an Orthodox Jew, warned against converting the Temple Mount into the object of idol worship. We would do well to heed his admonition, especially in light of the mounting loss of life over such symbols of national pride. After all, Jews and Judaism survived for millennia without either sovereignty or control over the Temple Mount. And they will continue to survive — especially within the confines of a state whose security can only be enhanced by peace.