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Giving new meaning to 'in God we trust'


PHILADELPHIA -- Can God save the Mideast peace process?

There may be no other option.

The question of who will be sovereign over Jerusalem's holiest sites has become such a deal-blocker that some have suggested declaring God the sovereign.

The "divine sovereignty" concept was floated at the Camp David talks. Under cover of this semantic fudge, hard decisions would still have to be made about who would control the affairs of men, especially security. If Jerusalem were resolved, other outstanding issues on the table would fall more easily into place.

Some rescue formula is desperately needed. The Oslo peace process was supposed to end by Wednesday but has publicly deadlocked over Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is tottering politically; President Clinton is on his way out, and the window of opportunity for this peace process is closing.

By the end of the year, the Palestinians are set to declare a state, whether a final peace is reached. This will abrogate all past peace agreements with Israel and could spark serious violence.

So negotiators are fixated on the explosive core of the Jerusalem issue: the fate of 35-plus acres of Jerusalem territory holy to both. The Arabs call it the Haram al Sharif, the "noble sanctuary" from which Muhammad ascended to heaven on a horse. On it sits Islam's third holiest mosque.

To the Jews it is the Temple Mount, their most sacred site, under which lie any remnants of the First and Second Temples, destroyed respectively by the Babylonians and the Romans. Orthodox Jews believe the temple will be rebuilt someday, when the Messiah comes.

At present the site is administered by the Muslim "waqf" (religious trust), but Israelis have ultimate legal and security control. Both sides insist they must have sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

This dispute goes beyond religion to the essence of each side's national self-image. The domes of the Haram's two mosques, which have come to symbolize a Palestinian state, adorn bas-reliefs and calendars in many Palestinian homes.

Israelis say the Palestinians fail to appreciate the intense symbolism of the Temple Mount for them. "Our delegation (to the Camp David talks) found that the Palestinian people were not too knowledgeable about the connections between the Temple Mount and the Jewish people," said Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. He spoke via video conference at a symposium on Jerusalem sponsored by Americans for Peace Now and the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.

Some Palestinian confusion may stem from the fact that Israeli rabbis forbid Jews to pray on the mount, lest they unwittingly step on soil where the innermost temple sanctum once stood. But Israeli negotiators told Palestinians that it was holier to them than the Western (a.k.a. Wailing) Wall.

"There are two competing narratives for the same sacred space," said Jerusalem lawyer and expert Daniel Seidemann at the symposium. Palestinians are reluctant to concede this. "To tell me that I have to admit that there is a temple below the mosque? I will never do that," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told Mr. Clinton at Camp David, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Palestinians fear that conceding Israeli claims will legitimize radical Israeli groups that want to tear down the mosques and rebuild the temple now. These fears were fanned by Israeli proposals at Camp David that Jews be allotted a special area for prayer directly beneath the Temple Mount. Israelis are made nervous by the construction by the "waqf" of a huge mosque under the mount.

Such mistrust can't be easily papered over by a formula of divine sovereignty. Each side wants to know who will have the power to make the rules about security on the Temple Mount, and about who can pray there or excavate or build below it.

"If going back to divine sovereignty ... is an excuse for Israel to keep these powers, it would not be easy to reach agreement," says Khalil Shikaki, the leading Palestinian pollster. He said such an agreement would be political suicide for Mr. Arafat.

And yet, despite all the caveats, the Israeli and Palestinian panelists thought the divine sovereignty formula might just work. Overall security control could be given to the Palestinians, if a joint Palestinian-Israeli committee were set up to handle special emergencies -- like a terrorist attack.

Each side would have to express respect for the other's beliefs. Muslims could not deny the Jewish temples had ever existed on the mount. No flags would fly over the mosques.

Whether both sides could make this work would be a supreme test of whether they can live together. If God's sovereignty can't solve the conflict over the Temple Mount, then there may be no solution at all.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may e-mail her at trubin@phillynews.com

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