Jerusalem -- an urgent issue for Trump administration

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Story highlights

  • Aaron David Miller: Recent terror at Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif shows heightened tension between Israelis, Palestinians
  • Trump administration must not stoke the flame by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or promising an ultimate peace deal

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Recent terror at the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, in the Old City of Jerusalem painfully demonstrates why the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is so fraught, but also why it's so difficult to change and to move toward a sustainable peace.

Seventeen years ago this week, I was one of a dozen Americans at the Camp David summit, a long shot effort by then President Bill Clinton to achieve what President Donald Trump aspires to now: The ultimate peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
As it does now, the Jerusalem issue bedeviled us then. Here are key takeaways about the current crisis that the Trump administration would be wise to keep in mind.

    What's at stake

    There is no way to overestimate the significance of the one square kilometer that delimits the Old City of Jerusalem. In that tiny space, three religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- lay claim to holy sites sacred to billions of people worldwide who will likely never see or set foot in the city.
    Those deep religious attachments to Jerusalem also play out in the conflict between Israel and key Arab states and the fierce competition between two national movements -- political Zionism and Palestinian nationalism -- that lay claim to much of the same religious and political space. Israel has declared Jerusalem its eternal capital, and most Palestinians aspire to east Jerusalem as theirs.
    As if all this is not complicated enough, there's the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif area, where the remains of both the First and Second Jewish Temples lie beneath two structures -- the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, holy to Islam. For Jews, the last remaining retaining wall of the Temple Mount platform, the Western or Wailing Wall, is sacred. For Muslims, it is the site of the Prophet Mohammed's night journey to heaven and, prior to the Kaabah in Mecca, was the first direction of prayer.
    At the Camp David summit in July 2000 we tackled the challenge of overlapping sacred space, but never came close to resolving the competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to sovereignty over it.

    Maintaining the status quo

    The shooting of two Israeli border guards on the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif by three Israeli Arabs last week has touched off yet another escalation of the tension. Serious escalations of violence, particularly in 1990 and again a decade later in the wake of Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, show the explosive power of the place.
    In view of the intense passions, the proximity and the confrontational politics, it's remarkable that this tiny space hasn't witnessed more violence. Part of the reason has been the recognition by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Waqf or Islamic Trust that manages the site and key Arab states, particularly Jordan, that the price of an ongoing confrontation, let alone a conflagration that damages those sites, is too costly.
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    Despite attempted changes in the status quo -- some initiated by the Israeli government itself and by extremist Israeli and Palestinian groups -- a semi-functional and at times admittedly shaky balance has held. Since 1967, Israel has banned Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount for both security and religious reasons and has sought to maintain access to it for Palestinian prayer, consistent with Israel's assessment of the security situation. Palestinians reject the notion that Israel should be able to determine access in this way. But issues of entry and division of management authority over the site continue to create problems.
    The question at the moment -- and it looms large as Friday prayers near -- hinges on just one of those changes in the status quo. Last Sunday, perhaps understandably, Israel installed metal detectors at both entrances to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif -- an act that Palestinians, including the sheikh who manages the al-Aqsa mosque, consider threatening, unacceptable and symbols of checkpoints and Israeli occupation.
    According to the Israeli press, both the Israeli military and Shin Bet, Israel's internal security services, are urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find some face-saving way of taking the magnetometers down. It would be the cruelest of ironies if the magnetometers, designed to identify weapons and deter violence, were not removed and their retention triggered more violent confrontations this weekend. Twice in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry worked with both Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah to find arrangements to restore the status quo when it was threatened.
    Curiously, the Israeli press has reported a number of fixes that might be in the works, including less obtrusive, hand-held metal detectors instead of mags, and only searching those individuals who appear suspicious. These ideas are being attributed to the United States, which is reportedly working with Israelis and Jordanians to defuse the crisis. The Trump administration is concerned about the situation and issued a statement urging the parties to maintain the status quo.

    Takeaways for the Trump administration

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    Right now, it's not clear whether the current crisis over the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif will be resolved in time to pre-empt a major confrontation. But whatever results, there are two key takeaways for the administration. First, don't mess with Jerusalem. This administration has been far more serious than any of its predecessors about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This mini-crisis should not only give it pause but create a permanent hold on that plan. If mags on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif threaten violence, what would result from the American decision to move the embassy, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital?
    No matter what the conditioning language, the move would be perceived as one not just moving the US embassy to West Jerusalem but implicit validation of Israel's control over the East, too -- and would represent a US effort to change its policy unilaterally to the detriment of the Palestinians. Given Palestinian and Arab sensitivities over Jerusalem, it's likely the focus would sooner rather than later turn to a defense of Jerusalem, including protecting the Haram al-Sharif. Hamas would surely try to raise tensions, and the Palestinian Authority might join, too.
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    Second, the Trump administration ought to scale back its fantastical rhetoric on reaching the ultimate deal -- a deal that would not only need to resolve borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem's status as the capital of two states, but also the issue of overlapping sacred space on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
    Seventeen years ago this week, we tried to resolve it. It was a bridge too far then, and it remains one to this day.