Jerusalem concessions force Israeli soul-searching


JERUSALEM, Jan. 2 (JTA) – The angry, anguished cry of “Uganda” is filling the air in Israel these days.

It doesn’t mean much to the uninitiated. But for those schooled in the fundamentals of Zionist history, this esoteric code word says it all.

Uganda was where the Zionist movement, back in 1903, considered setting up a Jewish homeland. But the plan was considered and rejected, as the majority of the movement overruled founder Theodor Herzl and held that only Zion – the biblical name for Jerusalem – could be the legitimate and practical goal of Zionism.

From the Knesset plenum to coffee shops to private homes, Israelis are again conducting the wrenching, back-to-basics argument over the heart and soul of their national project.

The negotiations with the Palestinians – accompanied as they are by terror and bloodshed – and the upcoming election inextricably linked to those negotiations are forcing every Israeli to examine anew the tenets of the Zionist credo.

The Temple Mount and the walled Old City of Jerusalem, focal points of Jewish longing over the centuries, have been placed squarely on the negotiating table. Most people here find that shocking, after 33 years of assurances from politicians of all stripes that Israeli sovereignty over the Holy City is nonnegotiable.

The Camp David summit in July, for example, appeared to founder over Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s unwillingness to give up Israeli control of the Temple Mount.

In addition, while his flexibility on Jerusalem went far beyond the Israeli consensus, Barak still appeared to be searching for ways to give the Palestinians a say in running Arab neighborhoods without divvying up sovereignty in the city.

Now, the turnabout by Barak and his depleted governing coalition has come so suddenly that it is hard to gauge the public reaction with any accuracy.

Polls published last weekend show that Barak is trailing badly behind Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party’s candidate for prime minister in the Feb. 6 election. The polls give Barak the support of just between one-quarter and one-third of the electorate.

However, President Clinton’s peace package, which envisions deep Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, does significantly better in the polls than Barak does. Close to half the country voices support for the proposals, though they still have to be precisely defined.

When asked to articulate their concerns, many Israelis say they are unhappy with the thought of Jerusalem being carved into a latticework of sovereignties. Fewer seem overly perturbed by the idea of ceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount, site of the biblical Jewish temples and today home to the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

According to the polls, even fewer Israelis seem concerned by the prospect of giving the Palestinians military and civilian control over such sacred sites as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron or Rachel’s Tomb just outside Bethlehem.

Interestingly, the fault line between right and left does not correspond precisely to the religious-secular divide. While the Orthodox communities are profoundly attached to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the ancient Peace on Israel synagogue in Jericho – the latter two defiled and burned by Palestinian rioters in recent months – the Orthodox are profoundly ambivalent about the holiest site of all, the Temple Mount.

This reflects the prohibition in Jewish law forbidding Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount. Jewish law, or halachah, regards everyone today as ritually impure and requires a process of purification that can only be undertaken, according to most halachic authorities, when the Temple stands.

The view is not unanimous, however, and a few Orthodox rabbis contend that Jews may indeed visit the mount, avoiding only a particular patch where it is believed that the Temple’s Holy of Holies once stood.

Still, the mainstream halachic prohibition dovetailed nicely with Israel’s political decision just after the 1967 Six-Day War to leave civilian control of the Temple Mount in the hands of the Muslim religious trust, and to prohibit Jewish prayer at the site so as not to provoke Muslim anger.

Barak this week said he would not sign the Temple Mount over to the Palestinians, but left open the possibility that sovereignty could be transferred to a third party. Leaders of the religious Zionist movement, which largely abides by the halachic prohibition on visiting the mount, regard Barak’s readiness to bargain over the area as heretical.

The differences within Orthodoxy were starkly evident this week when religious Zionist rabbis failed to obtain the backing of ultra-Orthodox rabbis for a public campaign against Temple Mount concessions.

In contrast, non-Orthodox rightists, whose ties to the holy places are less religious than historical, national and emotional, put the Temple Mount at the top of their loyalties and political priorities.

Ultimately, Barak believes, Israel’s secular majority will be prepared to forgo control over the holy sites, including the Temple Mount, for a peace treaty. Any such treaty would contain detailed provisions ensuring rights of access and worship for Jews at these shrines.

However, history raises questions about the credibility of such provisions.

In 1948, the Israeli-Jordanian armistice accord provided for Jewish access to the Western Wall. In practice, however, Israelis were flatly barred from praying at the wall, and Jordanian soldiers and civilians defiled Jewish synagogues and graves in eastern Jerusalem.

The past three months of Palestinian violence, replete with acts of wanton sacrilege against Jewish shrines – and some reprisals by Jews against former Muslim mosques inside Israel – have eroded any confidence Israelis might have had in the Palestinian commitment to honor such provisions.

Would that lack of trust cause secular Israelis to oppose a peace accord, assuming its security-related aspects – the army’s right to overfly Palestinian areas, to maintain listening posts on key mountaintops and to deploy tanks near the Jordan River if threatened from the east – are satisfactory?

That is difficult to assess. The perennial tension between religious and secular in Israel may undermine the secular majority’s sympathy for the sensibilities of the religious minority regarding the holy sites.

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