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Fresh eyes on Jerusalem’s stubborn impasse

For too long, the issue of Muslim and Jewish access to their holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City has been seen as intractable. But a new report suggests religious leaders can help solve what is at heart a religious issue.

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    The Dome of the Rock, located on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, is seen during sunset May 29.
    REUTERS/Ammar Awad
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A common notion among diplomats is that some problems are insoluble, and so must simply be managed. The status of Jerusalem’s Old City is one issue long seen as intractable, specifically access by Jews and Muslims to their respective sacred sites, the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary, home of Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

For decades, tensions over this overlapping holy space have triggered violence. Last year, one confrontation nearly ignited another Palestinian uprising. In any list of issues that must be overcome before peace between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved, the “Holy Esplanade,” as these religious sites can be jointly called, comes up last to be solved.

So it is refreshing when a respected research outfit, the International Crisis Group, takes a bold and counterintuitive approach. The Belgium-based ICG suggests the status of the Esplanade be solved head-on now. In a 35-page report based on interviews with various players, it says the potential for violence remains too high to ignore and that solving the issues can be a “jumping off point to reimagine what is needed to reach peace.”

The report lays out the specific fears, accusations, and history that need to be addressed, such as access for those who wish to pray at either Judaism’s holiest site or Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. It offers solutions for contentious issues over archaeological digs. And it suggests ways to include Palestinians in managing the site alongside its current custodians, Jordanians and Israelis.

“Access for all communities is the best way to ensure access for each,” the report states.

It even quotes the late King Hussein of Jordan who suggested sovereignty over the site be assigned to God, not just one religion, with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians charged with working out the details. Or as Isaiah prophesied: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Perhaps the report’s boldest recommendation is for religious dialogue – “within each society and faith itself, and if and when possible, between them” – to forge and sustain a solution.

“With the peace process defunct, Israel’s government willing to live without one, a major Gaza escalation always possible, the Palestinian national movement in shambles and a world distracted by a region aflame, calming the conflict’s symbolic core is important,” the ICG states.

A dispute over religious sites can only be de-escalated by religious leaders. The top rabbis and Islamic leaders must cool down the rhetoric and claims of extremists. This could eventually improve Jewish-Muslim coordination over these symbolic icons. Jerusalem might then live up to its historical promise.

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