Israel rejects Egypt's Jerusalem proposal, insists on control of Temple

JERUSALEM - An Egyptian plan to share sovereignty in Jerusalem with the Palestinians is unacceptable, the top Israeli negotiator said Sunday, because it involves Israel relinquishing sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Differences over who would control the compound, known as Haram as-Sharif to the Arabs, broke up last month's U.S.-sponsored Camp David summit, according to negotiators. The continued dispute remains a key obstacle to convening a second peace summit, even though the sides made strides in other areas toward achieving a permanent peace agreement.

It was Israel that pressed the Egyptians to lead an Arab initiative to come up with a plan that would be acceptable to both sides. And Ben Ami, the acting Israeli foreign minister, emerged optimistic last Thursday from meetings with the Egyptian leadership.

Yet on Sunday, Ben Ami said the latest plan was unacceptable because Israel could not back a plan that did not leave the Temple Mount - the site of the Jewish temple sacked and burned by Rome in 70 A.D. - under Israeli control.

''It's not acceptable to us that Israel's holy sites would be under someone else's sovereignty,'' Ben Ami told Israel radio. 'Holy sites' he said, included ''the site of the temple.''

He refused to outline the specifics of the Egyptian plan. According to an Israeli television report, Israel would control Jewish holy sites, the Palestinians would control Muslim holy sites and an international commission would supervise all other sites in the Old City - which altogether encompasses less than half a square mile.

Pressed by an interviewer, Ben Ami conceded that Israel does not consider the two mosques atop the mount - considered the third holiest site in Islam - to be part of a Jewish ''holy site.'' That leaves open the possibility that Israel would offer the Palestinians sovereignty over the mosques but not the land under them.

An earlier Israeli proposal would have left the Temple Mount under overall Israeli sovereignty while relinquishing the day-to-day religious administration of the mosques to the Palestinians. Israel was also willing to discuss proposals that would transfer other areas of the Old City to Palestinian control.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected that plan. In recent weeks, his negotiators have suggested they could concede to Israel control of the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall - a remnant of the temple that draws hundreds of thousands of Jewish penitents each year. But the Palestinians continue to insist on absolute control of the Temple Mount.

Israeli negotiators at Camp David said they felt Arafat was ready to compromise but that he feared negative reaction in the Islamic world should he concede anything on Haram as-Sharif. That led Israel to press Egypt - a leader in the Arab and Islamic world - to come up with a plan.

Israel and the Palestinians made progress at Camp David: They came close to an agreement on a permanent border and the future of Jewish settlements in heavily Palestinian areas, and they outlined solutions to the issue of Palestinian refugees who want to return to land that is now part of Israel. Taboos were also broken on Jerusalem, with Israel offering limited Palestinian sovereignty in some areas for the first time.

In a statement, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said ''the ball was now in Arafat's court,'' and that he expected the Palestinian leader to make a decision in the coming weeks.


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