Arafat does not tire of reminding Israelis at every opportunity, that he is not just the president of Palestine and the head of the PLO, he is also the deputy chairman of the pan-Islamic council for Jerusalem. It was not just by chance I was chosen for the position, he says. I was chosen because of my vast knowledge of the city’s history.

One of the members of the Israeli negotiating team asked him why he denies the existence of the temple on the Temple Mount.

“It’s not written in the Koran,” Arafat answered.

The Israeli quoted for him one of the most important Islamic books of exegesis to the Koran that speaks at length of the temple built by King Solomon.

“Inta akrut (bastard),” Arafat laughed. “I’m not talking to you again.”

That same Israeli held a little quiz for the members of the Palestinian negotiating team. He showed them a picture of the Temple Mount and asked them where they thought the el-Aksa mosque was. Most pointed to the building with the golden dome in the center of the mount — the Dome of the Rock, or as it is mistakenly called, the Mosque of Omar.

The Palestinian negotiating team is quite similar to the Israeli team: modern people, secular in their lifestyle, westernized. They seek their Mecca not in Saudi Arabia, but in America.

The representatives of both sides have been put in the position of having to conduct negotiations in the name of the spiritual, religious, love and hatred passions of others. The Israelis are uncomfortable with this. The Palestinians react just the opposite, with great aggression. It is as if they are saying – this is all mine: the Temple Mount, (similar to the Western Wall for us) has become nationalism, and nationalism has become politics. One Israeli said that what Arafat really wants is to put a giant projector over the el-Aksa mosque and thus blind his people and burn the problem of the refugees from their memory.

Their struggle is not for the holiness of el-Aksa but against the profanity of Israel. This piece of real estate must be pure Palestinian: any sign of a religious or historical link to the Jewish people contaminates it. This Palestinian intransigence reflects their desire for revenge for 33 years of occupation and of wickedness. What happened on the Temple Mount, one Israeli told me sadly, was a laboratory for me to understanding the Palestinian position in the entire conflict. Any place where they can erase Israel, they erase it.

The idea of giving sovereignty over the Temple Mount to God, control to the Palestinians and supervision to the UN secretary general, was welcomed by Ehud Barak and the Egyptians. The Palestinians objected, and the head of the Israeli negotiating team, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was not thrilled. The Palestinians were strict about rejecting any idea that gives any sort of symbolic expression of a Jewish link to the mount. Even the little that Clinton proposed in his guidelines is unacceptable to them.

The issue of the Temple Mount is the only one in Clinton’s guidelines that is open to all ideas. It also stars in Israel’s reservations. The problem is not halachic. It belongs to the realm of emotion, religious tradition, and historical consciousness. Israel still insists on its demand for vertical sovereignty: what is under the mount is linked to Israel.

If Israel concedes entirely on the Temple Mount, it could bring on itself, as well as onto Arafat, new troubles. Okay, the young Tanzim would say. We made the el-Aksa Intifada and we got el-Aksa. Now let’s make the refugee Intifada. This article appeared in the Yediot on Dec. 29, 2000

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