It's a dilemma for mainstream Israelis: How to resist capitulating to Arab violence on the Temple Mount - driven by irrational fears of Zionist plots against it - while not encouraging marginal Jewish groups who feverishly yearn to make the Arabs' worst nightmares come true?
Israel's "Third Templars" don't seem to care about the consequences of stoking an apocalyptic religious war with Islamic civilization - 56 countries, 1.57 billion faithful, most of them currently on the sidelines of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Jewish tradition holds that the Mount, site of Solomon's Temple (and the Ark of the Covenant) and later the Temple built by the returnees from the Babylonian exile, retains an intrinsic holiness. Disagreements among Torah authorities over which, if any, sections of the Temple plateau may be traversed without treading on the sacred ground of the Holy of Holies date back centuries.
To this day, most ultra-Orthodox Jews avoid the area. And yet for those who consider themselves part of the Jewish collective regardless of denominational or political persuasion, the Mount embodies the civilizational core of our shared past.
In 638, Arab invaders defeated the Christian Byzantines (inheritors of the Roman Empire) for control of this land. Within 50 years they had constructed the Dome of the Rock to enshrine the holy stone Muslims believe to be the place where Abraham prepared to sacrificeâ€¦ Ishmael. Subsequently, the Aksa Mosque was constructed on the southern end of the plateau.
AFTER ISRAEL captured the area from Jordan in 1967, Moshe Dayan decided to be magnanimous in victory and continue the authority of the Muslim religious trust, or Wakf, to administer the site. Jews, previously barred by Muslims from reaching the holy places, were allowed to ascend the Mount during visiting hours. In keeping with Jewish tradition and in cognizance of Muslim sensibilities, they were, however, prohibited from conducting religious services.
This seemed the perfect compromise, enabling Muslims to worship at the shrines, as was their custom, and Jews (as well as tourists of all faiths) to visit the site for silent meditation and inspiration. The Orthodox establishment of the day, running the gamut from haredi to Zionist, opposed going up to the Mount.
Now a diverse group of mostly post-Zionist settler rabbis, messianic followers of the late Lubavitcher rebbe and practicing "Third Templars" - abetted by a smattering of ultra-right-wing Knesset members - have banded together to force the "hand of God." Ostensibly, they are calling upon the Jewish masses to ascend the Mount and assert a Jewish presence there; we suspect that what many of them really want is to "disappear" the Muslim shrines, put up a Jewish temple and recommence animal sacrifices.
Therein our dilemma: Step back from the Temple Mount, and Arab intimidation wins. Assert Jewish rights, and risk heartening a band of Jewish extremists high on a toxic potion of piety and politics. That even a "moderate" Palestinian leader like Mahmoud Abbas does not accept the Temple Mount as sacred to Jews further complicates the predicament.
ONE POSSIBLE approach is for the government to explicitly remind the Wakf that its administrative role on the Mount derives from the authority vested in it by the Jewish state. Successive governments have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities by failing to monitor Wakf treatment of Jewish visitors and, most troublingly, looking the other way as the Muslim trust carried out unauthorized excavations.
In parallel, we want to clearly hear Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounce as folly the actions of those agitating for a Third Temple built on the ashes of the Muslim shrines. He should disabuse anyone who imagines that the antics of these "Third Templars" have support on the sane Right.
Given the Palestinians' endemic intransigence and quick resort to violence - including, it should be stressed, via malevolent inflation of tensions on the Mount - it is easy to be dismissive of all their grievances over Jerusalem. But sometimes, more sensitivity could be applied. The Palestinians are not always wrong to complain that municipal authorities are placing unreasonable demands on them in seeking building permits while facilitating scatter-site Jewish housing (with no security value) in densely populated Arab neighborhoods.
In the final analysis, Israeli sovereignty is best manifested by providing the same level of municipal services to all taxpaying Jerusalemites - and by insisting on the same adherence to the law from all.