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Shrine at center of peace talks being disputed

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

JERUSALEM -- Negotiations over a disputed Jerusalem holy site are failing to take into account its central role in the end-times prophecies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike -- or to calm those who want to see the prophecies played out, an Israeli author warns.

''People's beliefs are a strategic fact when you're dealing with Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and the Temple Mount,'' said Gershom Gorenberg, an expert on apocalyptic beliefs.

Backed by senior Israeli security officials, Gorenberg warns that a U.S. proposal for Israel to cede the sacred hilltop, known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, could spur extremists to desperate action.

The holy site at the center of peace talks and prophecy lies in a corner of Jerusalem's Old City, 36 walled acres on which early Islam raised gleaming mosques over the ruins of Judaism's two biblical Temples. It's Islam's third-most holy site; Judaism's first.

It's also the single stage on which three different plays unfold -- the final-days beliefs of the world's major monotheistic faiths, Gorenberg writes in a new book, ''The End of Days.''

And for Christian and Jewish end-timers, Israel's proposed concession of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians threatens to rewrite the ending to what they see as a divine script:

-- For Jews, the day a third Temple rises on the site of the old is inextricably linked to the coming of the Messiah.

-- In Christian doomsday theology, Jews' construction of the third Temple would be another ordained step toward the Antichrist, the Apocalypse and the Second Coming -- as was the founding of the state of Israel itself.

-- In some Muslim beliefs, meanwhile, Jerusalem will be the field for the final battle between good and evil, Gorenberg says.

Two former Israeli security officials recently warned Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the possible danger in negotiations over the site's fate.

Assaf Hefetz, former national police commissioner, and Carmi Gilon, ex-chief of the security agency Shin Bet, said in a letter to Barak that an extremist attack on the hilltop's mosques would likely ''lead to all-out war and unleash destructive forces that would imperil Israel's existence.''

''A single fanatic can bring horrible things on us,'' warned Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, overseer of the Temple Mount's adjacent Western Wall.

A recent TV panel discussion on the subject with some of Israel's leading rabbis opened with a clip from a 1999 apocalyptic movie, ''The Omega Code,'' showing a terrorist blasting away the hilltop's gilded Dome of the Rock.

One of the panelists, Yehuda Etzion, said he believed one day the mosques would be razed, but stopped short of saying he and his followers would do it themselves. ''There will come a day when the mount will be purified,'' said Etzion, who served four years in prison, in part for plotting to blow up the hilltop's Al Aqsa Mosque.

How this will happen, who will do it and when he will do it -- I don't know,'' Etzion said. ''But ... the mount will be purified. That means that the mosques will be removed from it.''

Israel's chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, calls the proposal that Israel cede sovereignty of the site ''sacrilege'' but condemns suggestions of attempts on the mosques. ''The Temple will be built, soon, in our days -- not at the cost of bloodshed,'' Lau said.

There is great diversity among Christian groups concerning end-time prophecy, with some giving it very little emphasis and others making it the core of their belief.

Those who believe the founding of Israel is prophecy fulfilled say the hilltop cannot be entrusted to Muslims. The Israelis ''go against their own Scriptures if they don't (keep the mount),'' said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, a staunchly pro-Israeli group.

History proves the volatility of the site, which Israel left in the Palestinians' day-to-day control when it took east Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

In 1929, when Jews raised the blue-and-white flag of the Zionist movement at the Western Wall, the 1 1/2 weeks of rioting that followed killed 133 Jews and 116 Arabs. In 1996, Israel's opening of a tunnel just outside the compound sparked riots that killed 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis.

It was right-wing Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon's Sept. 28 visit to the compound, in the center of a phalanx of Israeli police, that touched off the current Israeli-Palestinian clashes.

Adnan Husseini, the Noble Sanctuary's chief guardian, says Palestinians are prepared to deal forcefully with any future attempt on the shrine: ''The variety of ways by which the extremists have tried to harm the shrine has deepened our ability to contain any attacks,'' Husseini said. ''Now we are experts.''

Though only a small minority of Israelis actively anticipate rebuilding of the Temple, Gorenberg noted ''the power of the symbol that works below the surface'' on a much wider circle.

In early January, a rally against President Clinton's Temple Mount proposal drew an estimated 200,000 Israelis to the walls of the Old City -- one of Jerusalem's largest gatherings in modern times.

''Everyone, from the black-hatted Orthodox Jew, to any one of the hundreds of other kinds of people on the other side of the spectrum, has woken up to this,'' said Joel Fogel, a New York-born religious student. He was drawn to the Old City's Jewish Quarter, where believers have assembled an array of religious items -- including flax robes woven for the priests and lyres carved for the temple music --to await the eventual rebuilding of the Temple.

''The feeling is that the time is very near,'' said Eliamou, a guide at the Temple Mount Institute, where these items are being assembled.

To Gorenberg, people who dismiss the power of those beliefs risk a mistake that's been made too many times -- as in Waco, Texas, where, before the fatal Branch Davidian compound inferno erupted, David Koresh's fixation on the Apocalypse was dismissed by some officials as ''Bible babble.''

Any lasting Mideast peace deal will have to take views on Jerusalem's hilltop shrine into account, and on their terms, Gorenberg says.

''You (could) declare it to be under divine sovereignty,'' Gorenberg said, citing one proposal. ''And then each side can say, 'Well! I won! -- It belongs to God. And, obviously, my God.'''

End Adv for Friday, Jan. 26



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