The claim that no Jewish temple ever existed in Jerusalem and that Jews have no rights whatsoever on the Temple Mount is part of the “temple denial” doctrine that has been increasingly internalized in Palestinian academic, religious, and political circles since the 1967 Six-Day War
. Others, both Jews and non-Jews, believe that a temple did exist but indicate that the Jews abandoned the area soon after the destruction of the Second Temple nearly two thousand years ago. From that time onward, Jews lost all direct contact with the Temple Mount and relocated their central worship site to other locations, such as the Mount of Olives and later the Western Wall.
The facts do not support either of these claims. The destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. did not spell the end of Jewish activities on the Temple Mount. For many centuries, Jews continued their attachment to the site by maintaining a physical presence on the mountain. And when they were prevented from doing so, they prayed three times a day for the speedy renewal of the sacrificial service in a restored temple.
Both the first and second temples were located in a mountainous portion of Jerusalem that Jewish tradition identified with the biblical Mount Moriah, site of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Over time, the site was referred to as the Temple Mount (Har Habayit), and it was here that Herod (r. 37-4 B.C.E.) transformed a relatively small structure into a wonder of the ancient world. However, the magnificent edifice he built stood for less than a hundred years; it was destroyed in 70 C.E., three years after a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule broke out.
The Jewish people’s response to this cataclysmic event is in some sense the entire post-70 history of the Jews as they built institutions and created an entire culture that kept the people alive for millennia. But what role did the actual Temple Mount play in their lives after its physical destruction? Despite the conventional wisdom that the Jewish people were banished from this holy site, the evidence suggests that Jews continued to maintain a strong connection to and frequently even a presence on the Temple Mount for the next two thousand years. Even when they were physically prevented from ascending the site, their attachment to Har Habayit remained strong and vibrant.
Roman Rule (70-300)
Once the Jewish revolt had been put down, Jews were again permitted to visit the site of the former temple since the Romans generally did not object to the worship of local gods. As far as they were concerned, once the rebellion was suppressed, there was no longer any impediment to Jewish worship on the mount. Many stories in the Talmud testify to the fact that leading rabbis continued to pray on the now desolate Temple Mount.
Ascent to the Temple Mount was not limited to rabbis; the people’s attachment to the former sanctuary also remained very strong. One story relates that “Ben Zoma once saw a [large] crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount.”
The people continued to bring sacrifices that were offered on a Temple Mount altar that had survived the destructive fire by the Romans. The Mishnah, a central code of Jewish law codified in the early third century C.E., states that “one may offer sacrifices [on the place where the temple used to stand] even though there is no house [i.e., temple].” Some rabbis held that the sacrificial services continued almost without interruption for sixty-five years following the temple’s destruction while others suggest that sacrificial services ceased in 70 C.E. but were resumed for the 3-year period when Bar Kochba controlled Jerusalem.
Not only did the Jews continue to offer sacrifices and prayer on the mount, but at least once in the half-century following the temple’s destruction, they began to build a new edifice for a third temple. Emperor Hadrian (76-138), eager to gain the cooperation of the Jews, granted them permission to rebuild their temple. The Jews started to make the necessary preparations, but before long, Hadrian, at the instigation of the Samaritans, went back on his word and the project was stopped.
Following the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E., Jews were barred for the first time from the Temple Mount. The victorious and vindictive Emperor Hadrian ordered that the Temple Mount be ploughed under and issued strict orders prohibiting Jews from living in Jerusalem and from praying on the Temple Mount. As an alternative, Jews assembled for prayer on the Mount of Olives from whence they had an unobstructed view of the temple ruins. While this prohibition was strictly enforced during Hadrian’s lifetime, Jews did pray on the Temple Mount at various times during the second and the third centuries because the prohibition was not always fully enforced. Some scholars question whether Hadrian’s decree was ever legally formulated, but all agree that a policy of prohibiting Jews in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount was in effect.
Byzantine Period (300-618)
The transformation of the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian realm early in the fourth century marked a decisive turning point in the history of the Western world. Under pagan rule, Jerusalem had become a relatively insignificant provincial city, but now it attracted many pilgrims who came to worship at Christian holy sites. A new church, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, was built on the purported site of Jesus’ crucifixion and became the city’s central religious site. Until the Crusader conquest of the city eight centuries later, the importance of the Temple Mount was deliberately de-emphasized. Though many churches and other religious buildings were erected throughout the city at sites associated with the life of Jesus, only one or two were built on the Temple Mount. Until recently, it was widely believed that in the Byzantine period the Temple Mount was deliberately abandoned by Christians and turned into the local garbage dump in order to fulfill the New Testament prediction that the temple would be totally destroyed and “not one stone will be left here upon another.” These views were challenged by the recent publication of suppressed archeological findings. The excavations, the only ones ever permitted on the Temple Mount by the Muslim waqf in modern times, were conducted by British archeologists in the 1930s. Under al-Aqsa mosque, they found evidence of a mosaic floor, dated to the fifth to seventh centuries, that was quite similar to floors of churches found in Bethlehem. Most likely they are remnants of a Byzantine church that was built on the Temple Mount—contrary to the accepted theories.
Emperor Constantine (272-357) renewed the laws that prohibited Jews from living in or even visiting Christian Jerusalem, allowing access to the Temple Mount once a year on Tisha b’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the anniversary of the day the temples were destroyed). In 333, the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux described in some detail the desolate Temple Mount, noting a “perforated stone” (perhaps today’s Foundation Stone found in the Dome of the Rock), which the Jews anointed with oil once a year on Tisha b’Av. On this day, he heard the Jews recite the Book of Lamentations on the Temple Mount and saw them tear their clothes as a sign of mourning. Later Byzantine writers, including Jerome, corroborate that Jews continued these mourning practices on the actual Temple Mount.
Constantine’s nephew Julian, who became emperor in 361 C.E., turned his back on Christianity and issued an edict of universal religious toleration for all—pagans, Jews, and Christians. He reversed the ban against Jews in Jerusalem early in his reign.
In 363 C.E., Julian promised to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem; among Diaspora Jews, his pledge was greeted with great enthusiasm although some rabbis were apprehensive about the undertaking, hesitating to engage in building the Third Temple prior to the arrival of the messiah. Julian, nonetheless, went ahead with the project and ordered the imperial treasury to make available large sums of money and building materials. Many Jews came to Jerusalem to assist the skilled craftsmen and masons in the removal of the existing foundation, the first step in the rebuilding project.
Christian residents of the city were vigorous in their opposition to any attempt to rebuild the temple. Many gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray for the termination of the project. It would seem their prayers were answered since all work halted abruptly in the summer of 363; whether this was due to arson, an earthquake, or merely Julian’s death on the Persian front is a matter of some dispute. Julian’s successor, a devout Christian, immediately canceled the temple-rebuilding effort.
By the latter part of the fourth century, the Temple Mount had disappeared completely from the landscape of Christian Jerusalem. The pilgrim Egeria who visited Jerusalem in the early 380s provided a detailed description of the city in letters to her friends, but she made no mention of the Temple Mount. Similarly, the mosaic world map of Medaba from the mid-sixth century depicts Jerusalem in great detail but omits the Temple Mount altogether as does a seventh-century Armenian account of the city’s holy places.
Jews, on the other hand, never forgot the Temple Mount even when none of the original temple buildings remained standing. Wherever they lived, they faced Jerusalem three times every day and prayed for the restoration of the temple and the renewal of the sacrificial service. Furthermore, there are indications that despite imperial bans, some Jews continued to pray on the Temple Mount. The late fourth-century sage Rabbi Bibi offered instructions to those who went to the Temple Mount to ensure their behavior would not degrade the holiness of the place. A sixth-century aggadic work, Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba, includes an instruction for Jews everywhere to face in the direction of the Temple Mount when praying, adding that “and those who pray on the Temple Mount should turn to the Holy of Holies,” an injunction that only makes sense if the ban was not strictly enforced.
The Jewish people’s continued attachment to the Temple Mount is exemplified by an event that occurred during the reign of the Roman Empress Eudocia (401-60). When she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 438, she was greeted warmly by Jews everywhere, probably as a result of her policy of supporting non-Christians. When the leading rabbis asked her for permission to once again ascend the Temple Mount, she immediately agreed. Great excitement gripped the local Jewish leaders who sent letters to other communities throughout the world informing them of the good news and asking them to come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the coming Sukkot festival. More than 100,000 Jews came to Jerusalem that year, but once again, Jerusalem’s Christians launched a violent protest and blocked access to the mountain.
For almost two centuries after this incident, Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem. Until the Persian conquest in 618, Jerusalem was officially a city without Jews. This would change dramatically under the brief period of Persian rule and the subsequent, and far lengthier, era of Muslim hegemony.
For centuries, Persian and Roman (later Byzantine) armies had battled each other over the fringes of their respective empires. The invasion of Palestine by King Khosru II of Persia in 613-14 C.E. succeeded in briefly wresting control of Jerusalem from Constantinople. Khosru was aided by Babylonian Jewry who supplied 30,000 Jewish soldiers in return for a promise that they would participate in the capture of Jerusalem and that a Jewish governor would be appointed to rule over the city. Once the city was captured, the Persians appointed Nehemiah ben Hushiel as governor, and the new governor lost no time in reestablishing the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount.
Rabbi Elazer Kalir, one of the earliest and most prolific of Jewish liturgical poets, confirms the restoration:
When Assyria [Persia] came to the city … and pitched his tents there / the holy people [Jews] were a bit relieved / because he permitted the reestablishment of the Temple / and they built there the holy altar / and offered upon it holy sacrifices / but they did not manage to build the Temple / because the Messiah had not yet come.
But once again, this return to the Temple Mount was short-lived. Nehemiah was soon executed either out of fear of his messianic pretensions or because the support of the city’s larger Christian population was preferred over that of the smaller number of Jews. In any event, in 629, only ten years after the conquest, the Persians lost control of the city to the Byzantines who were subsequently defeated by victorious Arab forces sweeping out of the desert.
Early Muslim Rule (638-1099)
Jerusalem was conquered by Arab forces in May 638, an accomplishment ascribed by Muslim sources to the Caliph Umar. In return for assistance in the taking of the city, the Jews received the right to reside in Jerusalem and to pray on the Temple Mount without interference.
In 680, fifty years after Umar’s conquest of Jerusalem, the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty engaged in a struggle for control of the Muslim world with a rebel dynasty based in Mecca. The Umayyads opted to fight the rebels by damaging Mecca’s economy, which was based almost entirely on revenues from Muslim pilgrims. Their secret weapon was to create a competing pilgrimage site by building a magnificent edifice, the Dome of the Rock, on the site of the destroyed Jewish temple and hoping that this mosque would weaken Mecca’s economy by siphoning off pilgrims from Mecca. Thus, a political strategy designed to fight mutineers in far-off Mecca transformed Jerusalem’s Temple Mount into a Muslim holy site with far-reaching implications to this day.
But the metamorphosis of the Temple Mount into Islam’s third holiest site did not result in a total exclusion of Jews from the location. Soon after the Muslim conquest, Jews received permission to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount. Perhaps the wooden structure that was built over the Foundation Stone was first intended for a synagogue, but even before it was completed, the site was expropriated by the city’s rulers. The Jews received another site on the mount for a synagogue in compensation for the expropriated building. Most probably there was an active synagogue on the Temple Mount during most of the early Muslim period. Solomon ben Jeroham, a Karaite (a medieval Jewish sectarian) exegete who lived in Jerusalem between 940 and 960, affirmed that Jews were permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, noting that “the courtyards of the Temple were turned over to them and they prayed there [on the Temple Mount] for many years.”
Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Furthest Mosque), the second mosque on the Temple Mount, was built in 715 and was linked to a Muslim legend, based on an ambiguous verse in the Qur’an concerning Muhammad’s night journey to heaven. In this way, the Umayyads cleverly associated Muhammad’s life with Jerusalem even though the prophet died years before the city’s capture by the Muslims. This construction further cemented the site’s holiness to Islam. Nonetheless, during this first phase of Islamic governance, Muslim rulers were generally tolerant of Jewish activities on the mountain. Whenever a more intolerant ruler assumed control of the city, Jews were forbidden from praying on the mount but instead worshipped at one of the many Temple Mount gates; an eleventh-century document found in the geniza or storeroom of a Cairo synagogue describes the circuit followed by the pilgrims and the prayers they recited at each of the gates.
After the conquest of Jerusalem by the army of the Fatimid dynasty (969), a Temple Mount synagogue was rebuilt and used until the Jews were banished by Caliph al-Hakim in 1015. When a subsequent ruler canceled Hakim’s eviction order, the Jews again returned to this synagogue on the Temple Mount and worshipped there until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. Hebrew writings found on the internal walls of the Golden Gate are believed to have been written by Jewish pilgrims at least one thousand years ago, thus testifying once again to the continued Jewish attachment to and presence on the Temple Mount in this era.
Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187)
The early Arab rulers of Jerusalem for the most part did not destroy or confiscate any of the city’s churches. Although charged an entrance toll, Christian pilgrims continued to visit their sacred shrines. This religious tolerance came to an end when the Seljuk Turks swarmed out of Central Asia in the latter part of the eleventh century and captured Jerusalem in 1071. Assaults on pilgrims and attacks on churches became commonplace. As reports of these anti-Christian activities reached Europe, Pope Urban II in 1095 demanded that Christians rescue the Holy Land from the “infidel,” an appeal that resulted in the First Crusade.
Within hours of breaching the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, the victorious Crusaders had massacred almost all of the city’s Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. The Crusaders ascended the Temple Mount and after giving thanks to God for their victory, converted the mosques into churches, renaming the Dome of the Rock the Temple of God (Templum Domini) and al-Aqsa Mosque, the Temple of Solomon (Templum Solomnis). The mount was declared off-limits to all non-Christians and became the center of religious and civil life in Crusader Jerusalem.
Despite the prohibition, Jews continued to ascend the mount even during the Crusader period. The prominent medieval Jewish commentator and leader Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote in a letter in 1165 that he “entered the Great and Holy House [and] prayed there.” The Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Jerusalem sometime between 1159 and 1172, also recorded Jews praying “in front of the Western Wall [of the Dome of the Rock], one of the [remaining] walls of what was once the Holy of Holies.” Thus, even in one of the darkest and most intolerant periods of Jewish history, the faithful did not abandon the Temple Mount.
A Medieval Dispute
Less than a century later, the Kurdish Muslim warrior Saladin regained control of the city, thus putting an end to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in October 1187. Even though the Temple Mount was re-consecrated as a Muslim sanctuary, Saladin permitted both Jews and Muslims to settle in Jerusalem and to worship on the Temple Mount. The Muslim authorities permitted Jews to erect a synagogue on the site although the situation vacillated over the next few centuries. For example, Saladin, who at first had urged Jews to come back to Jerusalem, a few years later forbade them to go on the Temple Mount. From the late thirteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, the mountain was, for the most part, off-limits to Jews with occasional interludes of access.
During the first millennium following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews did not hesitate to ascend the mount, but by the Middle Ages, two distinct halakhic (Jewish religious law) views on the permissibility of doing so had crystallized. The dispute centered largely on issues of the degrees of holiness associated with the areas where the temple once stood and on whether Jews who could no longer attain ritual purity might inadvertently enter the location of the former temple. According to most rabbinic authorities, in the first centuries after the temple’s destruction, it was permissible to walk on the Temple Mount because the ashes of the Red Heifer, which were necessary for attaining ritual purity, were still available. But by the medieval period, these ashes were no longer available, and thus prevented Jews from achieving ritual purity. Under these circumstances, Maimonides taught, “Even though the Temple is in ruins today due to our sins, everyone is obligated to revere it like when it was standing … one is not permitted to enter any place that is forbidden.” On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham ben David of Provence [Raavad] (c.1125-98), the author of critical glosses on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, concluded that “one who enters [the Temple Mount] nowadays does not receive the penalty of karet [literally, cutting off].” Though there are various interpretations of the meaning of Raavad’s gloss, he probably held that the Temple Mount without a temple no longer had its original holiness.
In the subsequent halakhic literature, the vast majority of rabbinical authorities “built a fence around” Maimonides’ conclusion and forbade entering any part of the Temple Mount, fearing that some might inadvertently enter a forbidden area. Of the classical authorities, only Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1316), a noted French Talmudic scholar, expressed the view that in his days it was permissible for Jews to enter the Temple Mount.
And yet Jewish attachment to this ruined site persisted. In 1211, three hundred European rabbis, mostly from England and France, embarked for the Holy Land. One, Rabbi Shmuel ben R. Shimshon, wrote about his visit to the Temple Mount. Early in the fourteenth century, Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1366) wrote in his halakhic and geographic book Kaftor ve-Ferah about an earlier rabbinic ruling that urged people to come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount. While nothing apparently came of these plans, it is significant that a noted authority of the period could contemplate such an act, despite the self-imposed rabbinic ban. Toward the end of the Mamluk period, there is evidence from the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, David ben Shlomo Ibn Zimra (1479-1573), who wrote that the city’s Jews regularly went to the Temple Mount in order to view the entire temple ruins and pray there. He added that “we have not heard or seen anyone object to this.”
The Ottoman Empire (1516-1856)
With the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem in 1516, the relationship between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount entered a new phase. Sultan Suleiman I (the Magnificent, 1494-1566) ordered the rebuilding of the city’s walls and encouraged many European Jews, especially those who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal a generation earlier, to settle in the Holy City. Suleiman also instructed his court architect to prepare a place for Jewish prayer in an alley at the bottom of the Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount because he had prohibited all non-Muslims from entering any part of the Temple Mount. A royal decree was issued that guaranteed for all times the right of Jews to pray at this Western Wall in compensation for the Jews’ relinquishing their legal rights to pray on the mount itself.
Subsequent Ottoman rulers invested little effort in the upkeep of the Dome of the Rock or al-Aqsa Mosque. There are no records of important Muslim clerics or kings or even large crowds of ordinary Muslims praying on the Temple Mount. Even those rabbinical authorities, who agreed in theory with the precedents that permitted ascent, hedged their rulings in view of the actual situation on the ground. Rabbi Yosef Di’Trani, who visited Jerusalem during the 1590s, noted that there were locations on the southern and eastern sides of the Temple Mount where Jews could walk freely without any concern of entering a prohibited area, but he ruled that Jews should, nonetheless, avoid going there because they were not ritually clean. In the nineteenth century, students of the rabbinical giant, the Vilna Gaon, arrived in Jerusalem and became the prototype of today’s ultra-Orthodox haredi community. The leader of this group, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov (d. 1839), held that though there were areas on the Temple Mount that they were allowed to enter, Jews were, nevertheless, forbidden to ascend as the exact location of these permitted areas was in some doubt. This ruling became the normative position of the Orthodox world for the next 150 years. Despite rabbinical decrees prohibiting access to the mountain and the death penalty threat for any Jew caught on the mountain, the deep-seated Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount remained strong. An unknown number of Jews ascended the mountain surreptitiously during these centuries. No records were kept of these visits because of their clandestine nature, but occasional references in Muslim court records and travelers’ accounts give evidence of their occurrence.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
In the aftermath of the Crimean War (1853-56), the Temple Mount was opened daily (except on Fridays) to all visitors, regardless of their religion—a concession demanded by the victorious British. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem rabbis again issued a decree prohibiting Jews from going up, threatening to put any Jew who ignored their ruling under the ban, a form of rabbinical excommunication from the community. While the vast majority of Jews abided by the decree, many ignored it, including prominent visitors, such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Many of the new secular settlers also disregarded the rabbinical instructions and visited the site.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, repeatedly prohibited entering any part of the Temple Mount, a position also reiterated by his successor Rabbi Isaac Herzog (1888-1959). Herzog testified in 1938 before the British Partition Committee that Jews were not allowed to go onto the Temple Mount until the coming of the messiah.
Just before the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, Herzog instructed Gen. David Shaltiel, the Jerusalem sector commander of the Jewish underground forces, that should his forces capture the Temple Mount, they should make every effort to expel all enemy soldiers, but once they had accomplished this task they were to leave the Temple Mount as quickly as possible because of the holiness of the place. These instructions became moot since the Jordanian army succeeded in occupying all of the Old City, including the Temple Mount. For the next nineteen years, no Jew was allowed to approach the Western Wall or the Temple Mount despite provisions in the Jordan-Israel armistice agreement that called for free access to all holy places.
In June 1967, on the second day of the Six-Day War, Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem’s Old City and made their way to the Temple Mount; Col. Mordechai Gur, the brigade’s commander, soon broadcast a momentous message to the Israeli nation: “The Temple Mount is [again] in our hands.” For the first time in almost two thousand years, the Temple Mount was under the control of a sovereign Jewish people.
Gur ordered three paratroopers to climb to the top of the Dome of the Rock and unfurl an Israeli flag over it; four hours later Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the flag taken down. This order initiated a schizophrenic diplomatic and political state of affairs that continues to this day.
Dayan proclaimed that, henceforth, there would be unrestricted Jewish access to the Temple Mount.
This compound was our Temple Mount. Here stood our Temple during ancient time, and it would be inconceivable for Jews not to be able freely to visit this holy place now that Jerusalem is under our rule.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Israel Defense Forces chief rabbi at that time, was among the first soldiers to appear on the Temple Mount and described his activities on that historic day:
When we arrived on the Temple Mount, I blew the shofar, fell on the ground and prostrated myself in the direction of the Holy of Holies, as was customary in the days when the Temple still stood. … [Later] I found General Moti Gur sitting in front of the Omar Mosque. He asked me if I wanted to enter, and I answered him that today I had issued a ruling permitting all soldiers to enter because soldiers are obligated to do so on the day when they conquer the Temple Mount in order to clear it of enemy soldiers and to make certain that no booby traps were left behind. … I took along a Torah scroll and a shofar and we entered the building. I think that this was the first time since the destruction of the Temple almost two thousand years ago that a Torah scroll had been brought into the holy site which is where the Temple was located. Inside I read Psalm 49, blew the shofar, and encircled the Foundation Stone with a Torah in my hand. Then we exited.
Some weeks later Rabbi Goren established a synagogue and study hall, as well as his office, on the Temple Mount and held organized study and prayers on the site. But within days, Goren’s efforts were brought to a halt. At the behest of Dayan, the Israeli government prohibited Rabbi Goren from undertaking any further activities on the mount.
As a result of another government decision that same year, the general public, including Jews and Christians, was allowed to visit the Temple Mount without hindrance but not to pray there. Many visitors have taken advantage of this permission, but most observant Jews continued to follow the instructions of the chief rabbinate, which prohibit Jews from entering the mount because of the issue of ritual impurity. A small number of rabbis have followed Rabbi Goren’s plea to permit and encourage Jews to visit those areas on the Temple Mount that do not require complete ritual purity.
At the outbreak of “al-Aqsa intifada” in September 2000, the Temple Mount was closed to all non-Muslims because it was feared that the area might become a tinderbox of clashes with Palestinians. The mount was reopened to non-Muslims in August 2003, but visiting hours were severely curtailed with the authority of the waqf (Islamic religious endowment), the Muslim custodians of the Temple Mount, increasing in significance. During certain hours, Jews and Christians are allowed to go up to the mount but only if they conform to a strict set of guidelines, including a ban on prayer and bringing any “holy objects” to the site. Visitors are forbidden from entering any of the mosques without direct waqf permission; rules are enforced by waqf agents, who watch tourists closely and alert nearby Israeli police to any infractions. Thus despite the fact that the Israeli parliament passed laws ensuring freedom of worship to all at every holy site, Jewish prayer on any part of the Temple Mount continues to be prohibited.
Even after the Roman armies destroyed the temple in 70 C.E., the Jews never abandoned the site. No matter what obstacles or decrees others placed in their way, Jews continued to ascend and pray at or near the area where their temple once stood.
Whenever their physical presence on the mountain was outlawed, they selected alternate prayer sites, such as the Mount of Olives from where the Temple Mount could be seen. In more recent times, the Western Wall served as such an alternative. But even during those periods, Jews attempted, legally or otherwise, to go up unto the mountain to pray. In recent decades, despite the opposition of the Muslim waqf and the Jewish chief rabbinate, the number of Jews going up on the Temple Mount in order to pray has increased year-by-year.
Against this backdrop, the continued denial that Jews have any connection with the Temple Mount cannot but pose a formidable obstacle to a settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict.
F. M. Loewenberg is a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan-University and lives in Efrat, Israel.
 David Barnett, “The Mounting Problem of Temple Denial,” Meria Journal, June 2011.
 Eli Schiller, Kipat ha-Sela Even Hash’tiya (Jerusalem: Ariel, 1976), pp. 19-28.
 Rashi’s comment on the Babylonian Talmud (hereafter, BT), Pesachim 88a.
 See BT, Makkot 24b; BT, Shabbat 15a; BT, Rosh Hashanah 31a; BT, Sanhedrin 11b; BT, Avoda Zara 20a.
 BT, Berakhot 58a; see, also, Mordechai Fogelman, Beit Mordechai (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2009), p. 205.
 Mishnah (M) Eduyot 8.6; see also Maimonides, Hilkhot Bet Ha-bechira 6.15.
 M Eduyot 8.6; Maimonides, Hilkhot Bet Ha-bechira 6.15; Ha’emek Davar commentary on Leviticus 26.31.
 Genesis Rabba 64.10.
 Oded Irshai, “Ha-issur shehetil Konstantinus Hagadol al k’nissat Yehudim Lirushalayim,” Zion, 60 (1996), pp. 129-78; J. Rendel Harris, “Hadrian’s decree of expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem,” Harvard Theological Review, 19 (1926), pp. 199-206.
 Galyn Wiemers, “Jerusalem 101: An introduction to the city of Jerusalem,” Generation Word, West Des Moines, Iowa., accessed Apr. 24, 2013.
 Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6.
 Etgar Lefkovits, “Was the Aksa Mosque built over the remains of a Byzantine church?” Jerusalem Post, Nov. 16, 2008; Leen Ritmeyer, “Third Jewish Mikveh and a Byzantine Mosaic Floor Discovered on the Temple Mount,” Ritmeyer Archeological Design, Nov. 17, 2008; Israel Hayom (Tel Aviv), June 29, 2012.
 Irshai, “Ha-issur shehetil Konstantinus Hagadol al k’nissat Yehudim Lirushalayim,” pp. 129-78.
 Michael Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine: A Political History from the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984), p. 81; Menachem Elon, Temple Mount Faithful-Amutah et al v. Attorney-General, et al., in the Supreme Court Sitting as the High Court of Justice, Sept. 23, 1993, in Catholic University Law Review, Spring 1996, pp. 890-2.
 Jerome’s commentary on Zephaniah 1.6.
 Ephraem the Syrian, Bibliothek der Kirchenväter, A. Rücker, trans., 20 (1919), First Song, p. 16; Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio V contra Julianum, 4 (GCS 35), c. 668.
 Philostorgius, Historia ecclesiastica, Joseph Bidez, ed. (Berlin: Winkelman and Friedhelm, 1972), p. 297.
 Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine, pp. 196-200; Gunter Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land—Palestine in the Fourth Century (Edinburgh: Clark, 2000), p. 208; Robert Panella, “The Emperor Julian and the God of the Jews,” Koinonia, 23 (1999), pp. 15-31; Kenneth W. Russell, “The Earthquake of May 19, AD 363,” The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Spring 1980, pp. 47-64; David B. Levenson, “The ancient and medieval sources for the Emperor Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple,” The Journal for the Study of Judaism, 4 (2004), pp. 409-60.
 M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe, ed. and trans., The Pilgrimage of Etheria (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1919).
 E. W. Brooks, “An Armenian Visitor to Jerusalem in the Seventh Century,” English Historical Review, 11(1896), pp. 93-7.
 JT, Berakhot 2.4(17a), Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tavo 1.
 BT, Berakhot 62b.
 Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba 4.
 Michael Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 246; Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 217.
 Some scholars question the existence of this treaty. See, Elisabeth Campagner, “Eine jüdische Apokalypse des 7. Jahrhunderts? Kaiser Heraklius als Antichrist?” Internet Zeitschrift fur Kulturwissenschaft, Sept. 5, 2002, pp. 1-43.
 Ezra Fleischer, “L’pitaron sh’elat z’mano u’makom p’ulato shel R’ Elazar Biribi Kilir,” Tarbiz, 54 (1985), p. 401.
 Jacob Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 1920), vol. 2, pp. 188-9; Ben-Zion Dinor (Dinaburg), “Bet Tefila u’midrash l’yehudim al har habayit bi’mey ha’aravim,” Zion, 3 (1929), pp. 54-87.
 “The riddle of the Dome of the Rock: Was it built as a Jewish place of prayer?” The Voice of the Temple Mount Faithful (Jerusalem), Summer 2001; Abraham Benisch, trans., Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon (London: The Jewish Chronicle Office, 1856); Robert Bedrosian, trans., Sebeos’ History of Armenia (New York: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, 1985), chap. 31.
 Dinor, “Bet Tefila u’midrash l’yehudim al har habayit bi’mey ha’aravim,” pp. 54-87; for another view, see Jacob Mann, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature (New York: Ktav Publisher, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 313-5.
 Solomon ben Jeroham, comment on Psalm 30, cited by Shlomo Goren, Sefer Har Habayit, rev. ed. (Jerusalem: Ha-idra Rabba, 2004), p. 314.
 Qur. 17.1.
 Dan Bahat, “Identification of the Gates of the Temple Mount and the ‘Cave’ in the Early Muslim Period,” Catedra, 106 (2002), pp. 61-86; Abraham Ya’ari, ed., Igarot Eretz Yisrael (Tel Aviv: Gazit, 1943), pp. 48-53.
 Shulamit Gera, “Ha-ketuvot b’otiot ivri’ot b’sha’ar harahamim,” Catedra, 61 (1991), pp. 176-81.
 Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1957), vol. 4, p. 109; Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2003), p. 48.
 Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), p. 212; Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, p. 109.
 R. Elazar Ezkari, Sefer Haredim (Mitzvah 83); Yitzhak Shilat, “B’niyat Bet Knesset b’Har Habayit B’yameinu,” Tehumin 7, 1986, pp. 489-512.
 The Western Wall Benjamin described was not the present Western Wall (which did not become a site for prayer until the sixteenth century) but the ruins of the western wall of the Second Temple building on the Temple Mount.
 Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1960), pp. 20-4.
 Emil Offenbacher, “Prayer on the Temple Mount,” Jerusalem Quarterly, 36 (1985), p. 134.
 Eliezer Brodt, “Eimatai paska taharat afar para aduma,” Tradition Seforim Blog, 2009.
 Maimonides, Hilchot Beit Habechira 7:7.
 Raavad’s gloss on Maimonides, Hilchot Beit Habechira 6:14.
 Menachem Meiri, Beit Habechira on BT, Shavuot 16a.
 Ya’ari, Igarot Eretz Yisrael, p. 78.
 Ishtori Haparchi, Kaftor v’Ferah, J. Blumenfeld, ed. (New York: Beit Hillel, 1958), p. 214, n. 17.
 Responsa of the Radbaz, vol. 2, no. 691; Tuvya Sagiv, “Ha-knissa l’Har Habayit—T’shuvat Haradbaz,” in Yehuda Shaviv, ed., Kumo v’Na’aleh (Alon Shvut: Machon Tzomet, 2003), pp. 46-81.
 Joseph Schwartz, Geography of Palestine, I. Leeser, trans. (Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1850), p. 260.
 Manfred R. Lehmann, “The Moslem Claim to Jerusalem Is False,” Algemeiner Journal, Aug. 19, 1994.
 Israel of Shklov, P’at Hashulchan, H. Eretz Yisrael (Ramat Gan: Re’ut, 2000), sect. 3:11-12; idem, Bet Yisrael commentary (Safed: n.p., 1836), subsec. 26.
 Amnon Cohen, Jews in Moslem Religious Courts: 16th Century (Jerusalem: Ben Tzvi, 1993), doc. 104, May 4, 1551, pp. 114-5, doc 107, May 19, 1554, p. 117; Schwartz, Geography of Palestine, pp. 417-8.
 Dotan Goren, “Ha-aliya l’Har habayit ul’Makom ha-Mikdash b’tram ha-medina,” E-mago, 2007.
 Moshe Dayan, Story of My Life (New York: Morrow and Company, 1976), p. 390.
 Shlomo Goren, “Selection from Personal Diary on the Conquest of Jerusalem,” cited in Shabbaton, no. 422, May 29, 2009.
 Yoel Cohen, “The Political Role of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the Temple Mount Question,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 1999, p. 108; Goren, Sefer Har Habayit, pp. 30-3.
 Matti Friedman, “On the Temple Mount, a battle brews over Jewish prayer,” Times of Israel, Mar. 12, 2013.
The new relationship between Israel and Bahrain
The issue of the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain, following the agreement already signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is particularly interesting. It marks a realignment of the Sunni world with the Jewish State, clearly against Iran, and hence indirectly with the West.
Israel, however, does not always think strategically like its Western allies. This is positive.
The oil leverage between the Arab East and the Euro-American West is currently changing (although the EU has not yet realized it) given the rise of the U.S. oil power.
Nevertheless, there is a change also in what we could define as the military “protection level” between the Sunni Arab world and the Western defence system, between NATO and the U.S. or Atlantic Alliance specific agreements with Sunni Arab countries. Europe is obviously out of the game.
The primary aims pursued are the following: as to the Arabs, fully playing the Western card with regard to the Russian Federation and, in some ways, also to China; as to Westerners, the game No. 1 is to take back the Sunni world after the jihadist crisis and then to create a new market of crude oil prices just now that the U.S. shale oil is changing the whole price system. Ultimately, however, the United States wants to avoid Russia and China strategically “taking” the Sunni world.
The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. It finally needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.
Iran is an existential threat also to them. In the Middle East the areas of influence and contact between Iran and the Sunni world are such that they cannot be regulated by some kind of peace treaty. Yemen is a case in point. Every move in the Gulf is a zero-sum game.
Now, however, we need to take a step back. The “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAEs) and then Bahrain is based on future “normal relations” between the Jewish State and the UAEs.
An agreement drafted in mid-August 2020, but long prepared by the Intelligence Services and subsequently by both parties’ diplomacies, and also by some European Intelligence Services.
These “normal relations” imply usual business relations, direct flights, tourism, scientific exchanges and full diplomatic recognition.
It is obvious, however, that the Emirates will not send an Ambassador to Jerusalem.
It is not envisaged in the agreements, but there is, however, a specific exchange of information between the Intelligence Services, as has long happened also between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Again according to the Emirates -but the text is anyway clear in this regard – the Israeli-UAE agreement immediately stops any Israeli attempt of West Bank annexation, but it also envisages a renewal of the negotiations between the PNA and the Jewish State to “put an end to the conflict”.
Vaste programme, as De Gaulle would have said. The core of the issue is that now the Palestinians of the PNA – a badly conceived entity resulting from the end of the Cold War – are no longer of any use to anyone.
Neither to the Soviet Union, which does no longer exist and no longer needs cumulative training camps for European terrorists or possibly pressure systems for their Arab allies, nor to the European left (and to the EU, although it is not aware of it) that knew nothing about foreign policy, but only wanted Israel’s “reduction”. Least of all to China, which does notknow what to do with them, nor even to the jihadist galaxy, which has scarcely used the old Palestinian guerrilla network.
Currently the prominent role played by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and also in the West Bank – a movement deriving from the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly accepts the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in its statutes and which, however, is notoriously now fully supported by Iran, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is a role that is certainly not interesting for the Gulf Sunni countries.
Probably it is interesting only for Qatar and Turkey, which have much to do with the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, I do not think that Turkey and Qatar want to go all the way in this strategic game, with the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia and most of the Emirates.
However, no one wants to bear the high costs for managing the PNA any longer. They are strategically useless and most likely even dangerous.
Israel and the UAEs already tried to normalise their relations years ago. In 2015, the Jewish State opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, in relation to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Later there were sports meetings and Israel had also been envisaged as a guest in the 2020 World EXPO, now postponed to October 2021, unless otherwise decided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The real sign that the agreement with the Emirates was very important for Israel was the decision taken by Netanyahu to postpone the annexation of the West Bank indefinitely.
The Palestinians immediately recalled their Ambassador to the Emirates.
Israel cares little about the PNA, the relic of a Cold War that no longer has strategic significance, except for the pro-Iranian role played by Hamas and by a part of Fatah, the old political group of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is therefore interested only in the West Bank and, in full agreement with Egypt, in the anti-jihadist control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
Obviously, neither Saudi Arabia, nor the Emirates, nor Bahrain, nor other States in the Sunni area (even though Bahrain has a Shiite majority, but a Sunni ruling class), and even less Israel want to be associated with a corrupt and totally inefficient political class such as the PNA’s, which is now the glove within which the Iranian hand is extended – and Iran is the only power interested and willing to take the two political areas of the old PNA by the hand.
As mentioned above, the “Abraham Accord” has been accepted also by Bahrain and then by Jordan, which has an old peace treaty in place with Israel dating back to 1994, but burdened by the subsequent severe crisis of 2015-2016 with Israel, at the time of the annexation of East Jerusalem and hence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Aqsa means “the farthest”, a reference to the distance of Islam’s third holiest shrine from Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia).
The agreement has also been accepted by Egypt, which sees the jihadist tension in Sinai resolved, in perspective, with the Jewish State’s more direct and explicit collaboration. Finally, the “Abraham Accord” has been publicly praised by Oman, now that the new King,Hatham bin Tariq, wants to keep on modernizing the Kingdom of Oman and Muscat in the wake of the late Sultan Qaboos – whose Guards wore Scottish kilts and played bagpipes – and with greater strategic independence from the other Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Who is against the Accord? Obviously Iran, which sees a strategic correlation between Israel and the Sunni world looming large, with the very severe closure of the Emirates’ area to Iran – an area where it could have played the card of influence operations against Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Also Qatar is against it. The country is also militarily tied to Turkey and it is the financial and political base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is disliked by all the other Gulf Sunni States and, in some ways, is in a process of reconciliation even with the Iranian-Syrian and Lebanese Shiites.
Obviously also Turkey is against the agreement, not for the acceptance of the Jewish State in the framework of inter-Arab relations – a State with which Turkey has had diplomatic relations since 1949, although it has never recognised the UN Partition Plan from which the independence of the Jewish State itself originated.
Turkey has a cold attitude towards the “Abraham Accord” particularly because it will be isolated in the Emirates and in the Gulf area, since it is loosely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a project of Central Asian expansion that will not enable it to maintain the status quo currently favourable to it in the Gulf, nor – in perspective – the good relations with Qatar.
As stated above, Bahrain- and, if all goes well, it will be the turn of Sudan, Oman and Morocco – is accepting and, indeed, has already accepted the Abraham Accord.
Morocco has already had Jewish Ministers in its governments, and the private affairs secretary of King Hassan II was an Italian, from Ferrara, who had also been the only one to show solidarity with him when the young Giorgio Bassani was expelled from high school due to infamous “racial laws” of 1938.
King Hamad has already allowed Israeli leaders to participate – in the future – in a regional meeting on Gulf security, the Manama Security Dialogue 2020, scheduled in the capital of the Kingdom for December 4-6.
Netanyahu already met the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2018.
Why does Bahrain officially recognize Israel under the “Abraham Accord”?
First and foremost because the Jewish State is a brilliant success story.
Because of its technology, its stability, its military strength, even its excellent intelligence, Israel allures many countries in the Arab world and in other world regions. Sultan bin Khalifa has always openly expressed his esteem for the Jewish State.
In 2018 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister twitted a message in favour of Israel in its war against the underground channels created by Hezbollah. Later he explicitly expressed his appreciation when he saw that also Australia had recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.
The Sultan of Bahrain has openly put strong pressure on the Gulf Security Council for it to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.
Here we are not talking about traditional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but about a geopolitical and strategic choice: to make the Emirates and the whole Gulf a peaceful area, so as to start – as soon as possible – the energy and economic transition that will decide the future of the oil States in the region.
The war freezes positions. It is expensive and does not allow the great economic transition that all the Gulf ruling classes, with the sole exception of Iran, intend to begin as soon as possible.
Obviously Iran does not play its cards so much on oil as on natural gas, which is not envisaged by the OPEC system.
It should also be recalled that Bahrain also hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshopin 2019. On that occasion as many as seven Israeli journalists were welcomed to the Kingdom.
It should also be noted that Bahrain is closely connected to Saudi Arabia with specific reference to the economy and the selection of the ruling class.
Bahrain has a majority of Shiite population, with a Sunni royal House and a Sunni ruling class. Hence, more than for other Gulf countries, Iran, which is in front of its shores, is an existential threat.
The link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is increasingly strong, especially after 2018, when the small coastal kingdom had to repress – often harshly – the “Arab Springs” which, indeed, had many connections with Iran.
The greatest mistake recently made by Westerners in the Middle East, the “Arab Spring”, after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, when France lost some of its power because the translator was Luis Massignon, with his very refined Arabic that the desert raiders did not understand, while the interpreter for Great Britain was Lawrence of Arabia, who was used to the Arab streets and plebs.
What about Palestine? On September 3 last, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the “Abraham Accord” by Donald J. Trump at the White House, a videoconference was held between the Lebanon and Palestine, with the participation of Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian factions. It should also be noted that the videoconference had been organised by both Fatah and Hamas- a unique rather than a rare case.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, was in Beirut, together with Ziad Nadalia, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad, and all the leaders of the factions that are not allowed to operate within the Palestinian National Authority’s territories.
Mohammed Barakeh, former member of the Israeli Parliament, was in Ramallah.
For everyone, the strategic key to interpreting the “Abraham Accord” was the breaking of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudi Arabian initiative of 2002, then reaffirmed in 2007 and again in 2017 by all Arab League Summits.
This “initiative” concerns, in nuce, Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied territories, as well as a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN Resolution No.194, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.
What were the videoconference results? The clear and obvious perception of the isolation of the PNA, which no one now wants to maintain at full cost any longer, considering that it is a “strategic relic” of the past; the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a unique rather than a rare case; the inevitable opening of the PNA’s territories to the declared enemies of the Abraham Accord, i.e. Qatar, which will try to reach a strategic and military correlation between Libya-Tripoli and the Gaza Strip, as well as for the West Bank and then Turkey, with its Muslim Brothers, who are those who founded Hamas. But above all it will be a deal for Iran, which already supports the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions, obviously against Israel and waiting for Hezbollah to make again operations beyond the Litani River.
Hence “people’s struggle”, in the PLO and PNA jargon, but there is no reference to “armed struggle” in the final document of the videoconference, as well as the request for a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, and then the evident verification of the declining consensus for the Palestinian cause among the Sunni Arab States of the Gulf, from which a further restriction of economic aid to the PNA will result.
Nevertheless, the real danger, which should regard also Israel, is the PNA’s full implosion, which could cause global military, migration and economic phenomena.
What about the Russian Federation? It must go back being essential in the Middle East. The “Abraham Accord” brokered and mediated by the United States and by some European intelligence services can put an end to the comparative and strategic advantage of Russia’s victory in Syria and the very careful management of military and intelligence relations with Israel.
Not to mention the refined Russian containment of the Iranian pressure in Syria – one of the real goals of the Russian presence in Bashar el Assad’s republic.
What cards could Russia play in the new Middle East that is currently being defined? Many cards.
As early as 2018, Russia has started to meet the Islamic Jihad again, while Abu Mazen also met Russian leaders in 2019 to create a new “format” of peace between Israel and the PNA mediated by the Russian Federation alone.
Then there is the Lebanese card – Russia’s presence is increasingly visible in the Lebanon due to an obvious spillover from Syria.
Hence Russia’s number one game in the new Middle East is to maintain close relations with all the regional, State and non-State actors, so as to get to be the only supreme arbiter (also towards Israel) of the future and now inevitable Middle East peace.
What about China? It does not view the Abraham Accord favourably, considering that for China it is tantamount to an actual withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States – and therefore an increase in the costs for the strategic control of the region – but also to the return of many important Sunni countries within a U.S. economic orbit, just when China was seducing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
The “Abraham Accord” closes the Gulf’s doors to many countries that wanted to enter the region.
China, however, will put on a good face and make the best of a bad situation, by supporting an actual friendly country, Israel, and maintaining the usual excellent relations with the Sunni world, in the hope of soon replacing the United States as the political-military reference point for the region.
Will They or Won’t They? Saudi Recognition of Israel is the $64,000 Question
Will the Saudis formalize relations with Israel or will they not? That is the 64,000-dollar question.
The odds are that Saudi Arabia is not about to formalize relations with Israel. But the kingdom, its image tarnished by multiple missteps, is seeking to ensure that it is not perceived as the odd man out as smaller Gulf states establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Bahrain’s announcement that it would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates was as much a Bahraini move as it was a Saudi signal that it is not opposed to normalization with Israel.
Largely dependent on the kingdom since Saudi troops helped squash mass anti-government protests in 2011, Bahrain, a majority Shia Muslim nation, would not have agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without Saudi consent.
The Bahraini move followed several other Saudi gestures intended to signal the kingdom’s endorsement of Arab normalization of Israel even if it was not going to lead the pack.
The gestures included the opening of Saudi air space to Israeli commercial flights, and publication of a Saudi think tank report praising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship in modernizing the kingdom’s religious education system and encouraging the religious establishment to replace“extremist narratives” in school textbooks with “a moderate interpretation of Islamic rhetoric.”
They also involved a sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the world’s largest mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, that highlighted Prophet Mohammed’s friendly relations with Jews.
Mr. al-Sudais noted that the prophet had “performed ablution from a polytheistic water bottle and died while his shield was mortgaged to a Jew,” forged a peace agreement with Jewish inhabitants of the Khaybar region, and dealt so well with a Jewish neighbor that he eventually converted to Islam.
The imam’s comments, a day before US President Donald J. Trump was believed to have failed to persuade King Salman to follow the UAE’s example, were widely seen as part of an effort to prepare Saudi public opinion for eventual recognition of Israel.
Criticism on social media of the comments constituted one indication that public opinion in Gulf states is divided.
Expression of Emirati dissent was restricted to Emirati exiles given that the UAE does not tolerate expression of dissenting views.
However, small scale protests erupted in Bahrain, another country that curtails freedom of expression and assembly. Bahraini political and civil society associations, including the Bahrain Bar Association, issued a statement rejecting the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
“What results from normalization will not enjoy popular backing, in line with what generations of Bahrainis have been brought up on in terms of adherence to the Palestinian cause,” the statement said.
Bahrain has long been home to a Jewish community and was the first and, so far, only Arab state to appoint a Jew as its ambassador to the United States.
The criticism echoes recent polls in various Gulf states that suggest that Palestine remains a major public foreign policy concern.
Polling by David Pollock of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that Palestine ranked second to Iran.
Earlier polls by James Zogby, a Washington-based pollster with a track record that goes back more than a decade, showed Palestine ranking in 2018 as the foremost foreign policy issue followed by Iran in Emirati and Saudi public opinion.
The same year’s Arab Opinion Index suggested that 80 percent of Saudis see Palestine as an Arab rather than a purely Palestinian issue.
Mr. Pollock said in an interview that with regard to Palestine, Saudi officials “believe that they have to be a little cautious. They want to move bit by bit in the direction of normalizing at least the existence of Israel or the discussion of Israel, the possibility of peace, but they don’t think that the public is ready for the full embrace or anything like that.”
Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted in a tweet that “Israel formalizing relations (with) unelected Arab (governments) is not the same as Israel making ‘peace’ (with) Arab people. Look at, for example, what Egypt’s citizenry thinks of Israel. Iran and Turkey will capitalize on this reality as more US-friendly Arab [governments] sign accords [with] Israel.”
This year’s Arab Opinion Index suggest that in Kuwait, the one country that has not engaged with Israel publicly, Turkey—the Muslim country that has taken a lead in supporting the Palestinians—ranked highest in public esteem compared to China, Russia, and Iran.
A rift in a UAE-backed Muslim group created to counter Qatari support of political Islam and promote a state-controlled version of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler serves as a further indication that Palestine remains an emotive public issue.
In Mr. Al-Sudais’ case, analysts suggest that the criticism is as much about Palestine as it is a signal that religious leaders who become subservient to the whims of government may be losing credibility.
Mr. Al-Sudais’ sermon contrasted starkly with past talks in which he described Jews as “killers of prophets and the scum of the earth” as well as “monkeys and pigs” and defended Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran as a war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The criticism coupled with indications earlier this year that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment was not happy with Prince Mohammed’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic may be one reason why Saudi Arabia is gesturing rather than formalizing already existing relations with Israel.
Authorities reportedly arrested in March Sheikh Abdullah al-Saad, an Islamic scholar, after he posted online an audio clip criticizing the government for banning Friday prayers. Mr. al-Saad argued that worshippers should be able to ask God for mercy.
An imam in Mecca was fired shortly after he expressed concern about the spread of the coronavirus in Saudi prisons.
Scholars Genevieve Abdo and Nourhan Elnahla reported that the kingdom’s Council of Senior Clerics had initially drafted a fatwa, or religious opinion, describing the closing of mosques as a violation of Islamic principles. They said that government pressure had persuaded the council not to issue the opinion.
Concern among the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious scholars that the ruling Al-Saud family may break the power-sharing agreement with the clergy, concluded at the birth of the kingdom, predates the rise of King Salman and Prince Mohammed.
Indeed, the clerics’ concern stretches back to the reign of King Abdullah and has focused on attitudes expressed both by senior members of the ruling family who have since been sidelined or detained by Prince Mohammed and princes that continue to wield influence.
The scholars feared that the ruling family contemplated separating state and religion. This is a concern that has likely been reinforced since Prince Mohammed whipped the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and downplayed religion by emphasizing nationalism.
Ultra-conservative Saudi religious scholars are also certain to have taken note of post-revolt Sudan’s recent decision to legally remove religion from the realm of the state.
Ultra-conservative sentiment does not pose an imminent threat to Prince Mohammed’s iron grip rule of a country in which many welcomed social reforms that have lifted some of the debilitating restrictions on women, liberalized gender segregation, and the as yet unfulfilled promise of greater opportunity for a majority youthful population.
It does however suggest one reason why Prince Mohammed, who is believed to favor formal relations with Israel, may want to tread carefully on an issue that potentially continues to evoke passions.
An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia
Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago
I don’t understand why the majority of Muslims have reacted so furiously on UAE’s recognition of the State of Israel. Those who are criticizing Arabs are illiterate common people, who even don’t have a slight background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If we study deeply the nature of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the very conflict began as Arab-Israeli deadlock first, when the nationalist Arabs started the first War with Israel in 1948.
Similarly, the second war between Arabs and Israel began in 1969, when Israelis set Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire. Likewise, the third war began in 1973, which is often known as Yom-Kippur war in the history books and was the major development in the conflict. Unfortunately, the beginning of 1970s was the turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during which Arabs willfully abandoned the Palestinian cause for good.
A major turning point occurred when the Late President of Egypt Anwar Sadat visited Israeli Knesset and formally recognized the state of Israel. In response, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza strip back to Egypt, which were lost to Israel during the Yom-e-Kippur war. Perhaps, this was the very day, when the Arab leaders began reconsidering their foreign policy approach towards Israel.
Soon after the Egypt’s recognition of Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization became a sandwich between the Baathist regime of Iraq and Syria. The major animosity between PLO and Arab petro-monarchies began during the second Gulf War, when the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat visited Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then petro-monarchies began taking least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even the term Arab-Israeli conflict changed into Palestinian-Israeli conflict (please read late American President Jimmy Carter’s book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid” to understand this analogical transformation).
Another major reason behind Arab Monarchies least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Iran. Because, soon after the revolution, the Iranian theocratic regime has taken major interest in the Palestinian issue with metaphorical yet psychological slogan “Death to America and Death to Israel”. The Iranian regime began exporting the revolution to other countries in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon in particular. What Khomeini said on the wake of revolution during his first speech “Islam has no borders”. The message was clear, from now onwards Iran will be the champion of Palestinian cause, which has indeed infuriated Sunni Arabs. (To understand this please read Edward Said’s famous book “Covering Islam”).
Similarly, with Imam Khomeini’s declaration of himself as Vilayat-e-faqi, the Saudi Royal family declared themselves as Huremain-e-Sharifeen, which means the Custodians of two holy mosques. According to Lebanese philosopher and Political scientist Fawaz A Gerges; it was the CIA’s Idea to counter Shiite Iran in the Greater Middle East. Basically, since the revolution in Iran, the Iranian theocratic regime has used Palestinian cause as genuine platform to expand its influence across the Muslim world. (Please read Fawaz A Gerges famous book “America and Political Islam”).
Similarly, with the Iranian establishment of Hezbollah (The party of God) in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause, the situation turned worse. The Arab monarchies declared Hezbollah as Iranian proxy tool to export revolution across the Middle East rather a group fighting for the Palestinian cause. (To understand this please read Professor Noam Chomsky’s famous book “The Fateful Triangle“). Consequently, with the strange assassination of former Lebanese president Rafic Hariri in 2005, the tensions further escalated because he was close ally of Arab monarchies. The Arab leaders blamed Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon for the murder of Rafic Harari.
Another major reason behind the Arabs losing interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the political and ideological presence of Hamas in Gaza, which is an offshoot of banned Muslim Brotherhood. Ideologically, Muslim Brotherhood headquartered in Egypt is a pan-Islamist party, which since its formation is struggling to establish an Islamic Empire in the Arab world by overthrowing monarchies. In this respect, Hamas as an ideological offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is threat to Arab Monarchies and hence, a major excuse for Arabs to abandon Palestinian cause.
In contrast, the recent tremendous changes in the foreign policy orientation towards Israel across the Arab world indicates the beginning of new regional peace process. As a matter fact, Israel as a nation state is a living reality, which cannot be ignored and the continuing Arab confrontation with Israel is not in the best interest of Palestinians. The recent diplomatic step taken by United Arab Emirates to normalize relationship with the state of Israel is a positive step towards new regional peace and security architecture.
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