Can Israelis relinquish Jerusalem holy sites

JERUSALEM — If Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agree to return to the negotiating table in the next week, what are the chances President Clinton's plan for Jerusalem's Old City will be accepted by the Israeli public?

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 by Clinton.

Most Israelis find that shocking, after 33 years of assurances from politicians of all stripes that Israeli sovereignty over the Holy City is non-negotiable.

At the same time, Clinton's peace package does significantly better in the polls than Barak does in his Feb. 6 race for re-election against Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

Close to half the country expresses support for the proposals, though they still have to be precisely defined. Barak, however, will be trounced by Sharon, according to the polls.

When asked to articulate their concerns about Clinton's peace plan, 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.

Even more surprising is that the Orthodox are profoundly ambivalent about the holiest site of all, the Temple Mount.

The Orthodox communities, however, are 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 .

But they are ambivalent over the Temple Mount because Jewish law forbids Jews from setting foot on the spot. Jewish law, or halachah, regards everyone today as ritually impure and requires a process of purification that can only be undertaken when the Temple stands, according to most halachic authorities,.

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 he 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 Zionist rabbis failed to obtain the backing of ultra-religious 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 their 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 were satisfactory — including the army's right to fly over Palestinian areas, to maintain listening posts on key mountaintops and to deploy tanks near the Jordan River if threatened from the east?

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.