Although then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan shaped the status quo on the Temple Mount in 1967, PM Menachem Begin made important security adjustments.
• Since then, the status quo has changed immensely, mainly in favor of Muslims who openly wave Hamas or Islamic State flags there.
By Nadav Shragai
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who this week shepherded Israel and Jordan toward the first-ever formal written agreement on the status quo on the Temple Mount, doesn’t know it, but the first seeds of the much talked about Temple Mount status quo were sown about 48 years ago on another hilltop, Mount Scopus.
It was the second day of the 1967 Six-Day War. For the first time in 19 years, an Israeli convoy reached Mount Scopus unaccompanied by Jordanian legionnaires. Standing on the roof of the national library, looking out over the Temple Mount and its shining domes, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan rested his hand on the shoulder of GOC Central Command Col. Uzi Narkis, sighed deeply, and whispered a key sentence that would later shed light on the manner of conduct surrounding the Temple Mount: “What do we need this Vatican for?”
Years later, Narkis explained to this writer that “in Dayan’s eyes, the Old City within the walls looked like a threatening mosaic of mosques and churches and the potential for countless religious problems. Dayan was very reluctant to occupy and liberate the Old City.”
Indeed, the decision to enter the Old City and liberate the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, which Dayan tried to delay, was forced upon him after ministers in the national unity government Menachem Begin and Yigal Allon took the matter directly to then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The next day, the Israel Defense Forces liberated the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Old City. General Motta Gur’s excited announcement over the radio — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” — has become part of the national pantheon, but the euphoria and excitement Gur gave voice to were in total contrast to reality and the status quo arrangements Dayan had made. Gur expressed excitement. Dayan, characteristically, showed pragmatism.
Acting on the advice of Meir Shamgar, who was then the chief IDF prosecutor, Dayan removed the Israeli flag that IDF paratroopers had planted on the Dome of the Rock. He later ordered Narkis to withdraw a paratroopers company that had been prepared to be stationed permanently on the northern part of the mount. Over the next few days, Dayan consulted a reserve officer named David Farhi, a lecturer on Islamic countries at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who influenced Dayan’s thinking greatly, about the future of the Temple Mount.
The defense minister sat with Farhi for hours and listened to him carefully. He heard that for hundreds of years, the Jews had been tolerated in the Muslim world as a subservient people, without any rights to a nation, after rejecting the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, and “therefore turned into the symbol of an accursed people that twists the word of God.”
That, Farhi told Dayan, was what had led to the inevitable clash between the appearance of the Jewish state and the Muslim world. “The Arabs opposed the establishment of a Jewish state not only for practical reasons, but also on principle. For the exact same reasons, the Muslims will now reject any significant changes to the status of the mosques and the compound that is holy to them when they are made by any non-Muslim power.”
Dayan believed, and years later even wrote, that since the Temple Mount was for Muslims a “place of worship” whereas for Jews it was an “historical site of the past,” the Muslims shouldn’t be kept from treating it as such and their right to keep control over the place should be recognized.
Farhi had got his foot in the door. He backed the direction Dayan was already taking with Narkis. On June 17, 1967, Dayan invited himself to meet with the members of the Supreme Muslim Council and informed them of the steps that were to be taken: IDF soldiers would leave the Temple Mount; the management of the mosques and the compound plaza would be put into the hands of the Muslim Waqf, a branch of the Jordanian Ministry of Holy Places; Muslims would decide the rules for inside [the compound] but the limitations and prohibitions placed on Jews in the time of the British Mandate and the Jordanian rule would be removed; Jews would be allowed to visit the mount but not pray there; and Israel would be responsible for the security of the holy site and its surroundings.
A few weeks later, the Knesset passed a law applying Israeli legal jurisdiction over all parts of united Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Temple Mount.
Begin asked that the status quo Dayan put together be adjusted, and Israeli police officers were stationed at the Mughrabi Gate entrance. The move was intended to stop the custom of demanding entry fees from Israelis who wanted to visit the Temple Mount compound, while Muslims were exempt from paying. The government accepted Begin’s view that the existing situation went against the principle of free access to the site. However, oversight of entrance via the other gates remained in the hands of the Waqf.
This is how the status quo, the subject of so much discussion today, came into being. The reasoning behind it, Dayan and others were to explain, sought to separate the national-territorial aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict from its religious component. Dayan believed that he had the power to divide the two, but reality proved far more complicated. For both the Arabs and the Jews, separating nationality from religion was nearly impossible.
The bottom line was that the state of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, cast off its most holy place and left it in the hands of a competing religion, Islam, for which the Temple Mount was only the third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. It was a decision without precedent in relations between peoples and religions. The Muslims were surprised at Dayan’s generosity. Sheikh Saad a-Din al-Alami, the mufti of Jerusalem in the days immediately after the Six-Day War, admitted as much in a conversation with him. With a few exceptions, the Jews responded to Dayan’s status quo with indifference. Most of them were satisfied with the Western Wall.
No to a foreign flag
Only a few former members of the Stern Gang and members of the El Har Hashem Society, an advocacy group for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount, mainly then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, tried to change Dayan’s decision. Goren threw up his hands after a few weeks; the rest repeatedly petitioned the High Court of Justice, which rejected each petition in turn. The justices ruled that the Jews’ right to pray on the mount was superseded by the concern over public disorder, disputes, and religious friction, and accepted the government’s position.
The third factor, in addition to the government and the High Court, that served to ingrain the status quo was the rabbis. In those days, nearly all the rabbis from all streams of Judaism — ultra-Orthodox and national religious — said that Jews were forbidden from entering the Temple Mount regardless of whether they did so to visit or to pray. The explanation was based on Jewish law and related to the fear that Jews would enter the place where the Temple and the Holiest of Holies once stood without having ritually cleansed themselves. Even rabbis who thought that the additions that Herod made to the Temple Mount could be identified and defined and therefore permissible to visit, as they were less holy, did not change their minds. They were afraid that the public would not be able to tell the difference between the areas that they were allowed to visit and those they were not.
Begin suggested to his fellow ministers that they not make any formal decisions forbidding Jews from praying on the mount. They listened. Then-Postal Services Minister Yisrael Yeshayahu asked in a ministerial meeting on holy sites: “Who are we to stop Jews from praying on the Temple Mount?” At the end of the meeting, the decision was worded as Begin had wanted — in positive rather than negative language — and it was decided that when Jews arrived at the Temple Mount to pray, they would be directed to the Western Wall.
Begin and Dayan addressed the future status quo on the mount as well. Dayan was willing to serve as foreign minister in Begin’s first government on the condition that the government adhere to his status quo and uphold the prohibition against Jews praying on the mount. Begin agreed. When he was approached by El Har Hashem activists, including Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun, and asked to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, Begin empathized with them, but sent them to the chief rabbis, who opposed Jews visiting the mount at all.
But at the first Camp David summit in September 1978, Begin brought all his power to bear against the initiative to fly flags of Arab nations on the Temple Mount. He clashed with then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the issue, and even warned the Americans that “flying a religious flag on the Temple Mount would be a recognition that it belongs to the Muslims.” Begin also had aggressive words for then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Thousands of years of Jewish history in Jerusalem are the basis of our refusal to fly an Arab flag on the Temple Mount. … I’m sickened at the sign of the maneuvers the great superpower is making to convince us to fly a foreign flag over Jerusalem.”
A threat to hegemony
Nearly 50 years have passed since Dayan established the status quo on the mount, and not much remains of it. The Muslims continue to increase their religious and administrative autonomy on the mount, and the prohibition against Jewish prayer is still in place and going strong. Other than these two points, the mount has undergone many changes, and the status quo and about 10 of its components have changed — mostly to the benefit of the Muslim side. The changes were and are the result of profound changes on both on the Muslim and the Jewish sides.
The most blatant change is to the Muslim prayer areas, which have expanded significantly. In 1967, only Al-Aqsa mosque served as a place of prayer, but today the Dome of the Rock, which wasn’t originally a mosque, is used for women’s prayer on Fridays. Two other underground mosques have been built on the Temple Mount: the al-Marwani mosque in King Solomon’s Stables, and the underground “first Al-Aqsa mosque” below the above-ground one. In contrast to the past, Muslims today apply the term “Al-Aqsa” and its holy connotations not only to the mosque itself, but to all parts of the compound, including its streets and walls — even the Western Wall.
Over the years, the Muslims have done serious damage to the antiquities on the mount. They also launched a campaign to win public opinion that denies any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount — they refer to the Temple as “al-Mazoom” (the imaginary or false.)
Meanwhile, Muslim politicians and religious figures have adopted the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” narrative and are wielding it like an axe. The made-up story, which is accepted as the literal truth by many in the Muslim world, has sparked more than one cycle of extreme violence, terrorist attacks, and murders of Jews.
In addition, visits by Jews to the mount, which in the past were subject to only a few restrictions, have been reduced to a large degree, and often made impossible. Today, unlike in the past, it is forbidden to visit the mosques; it is forbidden to visit the mount on the Sabbath, and the police limit the tour route and the length of the visits. Two gates once used to admit visitors are now closed to non-Muslims.
The flipside is that the number of Jews who want to visit the Temple Mount, as they are allowed to do under the status quo agreement, has grown considerably. The process began about 20 years ago when many religious Zionist rabbis changed their stance and decided to permit, even encourage, Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The Muslims saw this change as a threat to their hegemony on the Temple Mount, but the Israeli government’s unequivocal declarations that it has no intention of dividing the mount or allowing Jews to pray there were and are mistrusted.
Muslim suspicions were raised by a series of attempts by Jewish zealots in the 1970s and 1980s to attack the mosques and even blow them up — Yoel Lerner’s Gal underground movement, the Lifta gang, the Jewish Underground, and an Australian Christian tourist named Denis Michael Rohan, who set fire to Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969. All of these incidents, as well as a few other lesser-known cases, caused the Muslims to point a finger at the Israeli government and claim that it was part of or even behind the attempts to damage the mosques.
The accusation was baseless. Israel has repeatedly thwarted potential attacks on the mosques by Jewish extremists and arrested the masterminds of such deranged plans. But blaming Israel and Zionism for the attempts to bring down the mosques became an Arab Muslim propaganda tool.
At the same time, Israel was blocking attempts by Palestinian terrorist cells, mainly Hamas, to launch weapons from the Temple Mount. Cells that used the mount as a meeting place to plan terrorist attack were also arrested. One of these was the cell that planned to execute an attack on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University and even shoot down former U.S. President George W. Bush’s plane.
Another major change involves Jordan. In 1967, the Hashemite Kingdom was nothing more than the employer of the Waqf, but today it has become Israel’s partner in managing the Temple Mount, as evidenced by Jordan’s renovation the compound’s eastern and southern walls when they started cracking. Jordan vetoed the idea of replacing the temporary Mughrabi Bridge that is still an eyesore of the Western Wall plaza. Jordan demanded that Israel limit the number of Jews who visit the Temple Mount, and Israel agreed. The Knesset even postponed a debate on the Temple Mount issue at Jordan’s request.
There are two reasons for Jordan’s growing influence. First is Israel’s desire to weaken the Islamic Movement’s stature on the Temple Mount. The Islamic Movement has consistently taken care to stir things up, and stood behind the construction of the two new mosques. Second, Israel wants to strengthen the Jordanian regime by preserving its status as guardian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Israeli policy is also informed by a host of security and economic interests it shares with the Jordanians.
However, Jordan’s growing influence on the mount stems not only from these interests but also from two written agreements. The first was the peace contract between Jordan and Israel, signed in July 1994. The agreement says, among other things, that “Israel honors the special existing role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem,” and that when negotiations for a permanent deal take place, Israel will give a “high priority” to Jordan’s historic role in those sites. In effect, Israel has already skipped ahead and upgraded Jordan’s status on the Temple Mount.
The second agreement was signed in January 2013 between King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. This agreement stipulates that Jordan, as the “guardian of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem,” will represent Muslim interests in the city in general and the interests of the PA in particular regarding the Temple Mount, until a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem is established. The deal also features an apparatus for coordination between Jordan and the PA about the Temple Mount, but even though it was signed, there is tension between the two entities.
Other notable changes to the status quo: A total prohibition against flying flags on the mount, which used to be strictly enforced, has melted away. Palestinian and PA flags, Hamas flag, and even Islamic State flags fly on the mount, whereas Israeli flags are hustled away immediately. Laws pertaining to antiquities, planning, and construction, which were once relatively seriously enforced, have become almost virtual. Israel’s state comptrollers have criticized the phenomenon, and it was also documented in the book “Under the Surface” by none other than former Israel Antiquities Authority Director General Shuka Dorfmann, who passed away about a year ago.
In his book, Dorfmann quotes statements by former Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami during a discussion of the status quo on the Temple Mount. “In [no] period and under [no] government, has there ever been any binding framework for preserving the status quo, and the Palestinians and the Waqf have never been notified of the government’s official position on what is allowed and what is forbidden on the Temple Mount. It has also never been made clear what steps Israel will take should the status quo be violated.”
Seen in that light, the understandings reached by Kerry comprise a far-reaching innovation, for better or worse. Dayan’s status quo was verbal and vague; it allowed Jews to continue to believe that they had not given up the Temple Mount, since it wasn’t a long-term agreement. The rules set by Dayan allowed the Muslims to reject claims about so-called cooperation with Israel and argue that it was a deal that had been forced on them.
The great advantage of the status quo was also its great disadvantage. The Jews would never have formally agreed to forgo prayer on the mount. The Muslims would never formally agree to give up the Western Wall, which they call “al-Buraq.” From that perspective, the Kerry understandings are an historic precedent.
There is nothing significantly new in the understandings, but nevertheless, this is the first time that Israel has officially declared to the world that Jews shall not pray on the Temple Mount, and that only Muslims are allowed to do so. On the other hand, it’s also the first time that either the U.S. or Jordan has put out an official announcement stating that Jews may visit the mount, if not pray there.
In recent years the prohibition against Jewish prayer on the mount has been stringently enforced, whereas permission to visit has been only partially guaranteed, and in practice it has become difficult or impossible for Jews to visit the mount. This will be a test of the Kerry understandings on the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount activist groups are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the prohibition against Jewish prayer on the mount out of concern for law and order and note that the Kerry declaration is devoid of any mention of the very right to pray, even if it is not exercised. Sources close to the prime minister have explained that Israel is not giving up that right, but for now is opting not to exercise it. They also pointed out that the demand that the Waqf decide who and how many Jews would enter the compound had been rejected, and clarified that for now MKs and ministers would still be banned from visiting the site. Security cameras will be installed in an orderly manner in coordination with Jordan, not haphazardly the way the Waqf tried to do this week.
Either way, it’s clear that the Kerry understandings that Netanyahu and Abdullah approved have effectively killed the campaign to change the status quo and allow Jews to exercise their right to pray there. The campaign to allow Jewish prayer has been led for the past two years by public figures such as Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (acting in his former capacity as Deputy Religious Services Minister), Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev when she was chair of the Knesset House Committee. But the understandings might provide an opening for the Temple Mount activists to turn to the courts for assistance in forcing the government to allow freer visits.
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