Can the Temple Mount be a trading card to entice the Saudis?

Saudi Arabia already enjoys custodianship of the Sacred Mosque, the Al-Masjid al-Ḥaram in Mecca, which is the holiest shrine in Islam.

A general view of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives shows the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, June 21, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
A general view of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives shows the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, June 21, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
US President Donald Trump didn’t even pause when asked by a reporter in Washington if Saudi Arabia would follow the United Arab Emirates, which last week signed a peace deal with Israel to normalize ties.
“I do,” he said on Wednesday.
Trump was so eager to answer that question from the White House podium he didn’t even wait for the reporter to finish before interrupting her in the affirmative.
It was as if the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan had not just hours earlier announced that his country had no intention of signing a peace deal with Israel prior to its withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines within the context of a final status agreement for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law and Special Adviser Jared Kushner has been more cautious about Saudi Arabia, when predicting which countries might agree to recognize Israel prior to any deal with the Palestinians, noting that it would happen, but perhaps not right away.
Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk speculated on Twitter this week and then in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, that one way to get Saudi Arabia to the table, was to offer them some form of custodianship over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif.
It was, he clarified, a speculative idea and not one which he would recommend.
Saudi Arabia already enjoys custodianship of the Sacred Mosque, Al-Masjid al-Ḥaram (Grand mosque) in Mecca, which is the holiest shrine in Islam.
It is also custodian of the second holiest shrine, The Mosque of the Prophet, known as Al-Masjid al-Nabawi.
Saudi custodianship of al-Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site, would expand its role as the keeper of the Muslim faith.
It’s a role that the House of Saud has always sought, achieving success already a century ago, when it secured custodianship of the Mecca and Medina mosques from the Hashemites, who had previously held that role.
This special religious role is so important that Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, also referred to as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Until after World War I, all three mosques had been controlled by the Hashemite dynasty, which now rules Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom has maintained custodianship of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a role that is enshrined in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
The Trump peace plan, which was unveiled in January, references maintaining this role.
But that has not prevented speculation – particularly in the media – that the Trump deal could include some role for Saudi Arabia in Jerusalem.
There are obviously other issues that could entice Saudi Arabia, such as advanced military weapons or assurances with regard to Iran. But the issue of Jerusalem continues to resurface.
Jewish Agency Chairman Issac Herzog spoke of the possibly of a Saudi role in Jerusalem in 2018, when he was an MK, the Labor Party leader and opposition chairman.
AMONG THE stumbling blocks to a Saudi-Israel deal, is the philosophical divide on Israel that exists between King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
MBS has spoken on the record about wanting ties with Israel. “In some ways he would like to have done what [the UAE] did,” Indyk said.
“What would it take for MBS to go to his father and say, ‘we should recognize Israel and have an open relationship like with the UAE,” Indyk speculated.
“I imagine he would go to his his father and say, ‘I got you Jerusalem, Dad. Your forefathers kicked the Hashemites” out of the mosques of Mecca and Medina, Indyk said drawing out an imaginary conversation between the two men.
MBS would tell his father he would work with “Jared Kushner to get you control of the third holiest mosque, and we’ll kick the Hashemites out of there, as well,” Indyk said.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Jordan are already tense, Indyk said.
Among the fears of a Saudi custodianship in Jerusalem, is that it would be seen as such a stunning defeat on the Jordanian street that it would unseat the moderate Hashemite kingdom. It could also threaten to dissolve the 1994 peace deal with Israel.
Still it would not be unusual for Trump to push forward with a Temple Mount offer to Saudi Arabia, Indyk said.
“These guys [the Trump administration] are operating here from their experience with New York real estate deals, where might makes right,” Indyk said. Trump “tends to take rash steps on the basis of instincts rather than careful deliberation,” he added.
Jordan is weak, dependent on Israel and the US for its security, Indyk said.
But he cautioned that such a move would be very dangerous. It “would be a security risk for Israel. It would be madness from Israel’s perspective,” Indyk said.
Such a move “could easily blow up. My experience is stay away from Jerusalem. Do not touch it,” Indyk warned.
Retired IDF Brig.-Gen. Mike Herzog, who is an International fellow at the Washington Institute, said the idea of a Saudi role has come up numerous times during past peace processes, including under former US President Bill Clinton and within the context of the 2002 Arab Peace plan.
Even as far back 1967, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, former defense minister Moshe Dayan spoke of the possibility of a Saudi flag in the area of the Temple Mount.
The Saudis want to play a role in Jerusalem, but it is not clear that they want to replace the Jordanians as custodians of the Temple Mount, Herzog said.
“I am not sure the US or the Trump administration will offer them custodianship, which would mean changing the Trump [peace] plan. But they could offer them some kind of a role in other ways,” he said.
Saudi Arabia could be involved in the endeavor to bring Muslim worshippers to Jerusalem from Arab countries, Herzog speculated.
Or Saudi Arabia could be given an opportunity to invest in eastern Jerusalem, particularly in lieu of Turkey which has been very active with regard to east Jerusalem real estate, Herzog said.
Another idea would be a Muslim council that would be involved in the Temple Mount, separate from the Jordanian custodianship from the Islamic Wakf, which is in charge of the site, Herzog said.
“Saudi Arabia could have a leading role in such a council,” Herzog said. It could be tasked with renovation at the site.
“I assume both Israeli and the US would like to find the right balance between Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” he added.