Senior Palestinian leader Jibril Rajoub has found himself in hot water for comments he made June 3 on Israeli TV Channel 2. Rajoub, a top leader in Fatah, the main faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of the Palestinian Football Association, came under ferocious attack for apparently suggesting Israeli oversight of the Western Wall as part of any peace treaty.
Agence France-Presse quoted Rajoub as having praised US President Donald Trump’s solo visit to the Western Wall as an attempt to appear not to have adopted a position on the holy site. Rajoub reportedly said in Hebrew, “He [Trump] went to the Western Wall, which we understand is a holy place to the Jews. In the end, it must remain under Jewish sovereignty. We have no argument about that. This is a Jewish holy place.”
The respected Paris-based news agency also reported Rajoub insisting that any future peace deal recognize the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque as belonging to the Palestinians. “It’s not yours [Israelis]; you need to stop talking about it,” Rajoub reportedly said, using the Hebrew term “Har Ha Bait” (Temple Mount). “The status quo since 1967, which was set by Moshe Dayan — I think we both need to aim for that.”
Rajoub took to Facebook on June 4 to defend himself, including to insist that he never used the terms “sovereignty” or “Israel” in the interview. “In an interview in Hebrew, what I said was that when Trump visited the Buraq Wall [Western Wall], which is holy to Jews, he didn’t allow any Israeli official to accompany him. This was a message that he rejects your [Israeli] sovereignty over the place,” Rajoub wrote. “This is all I said on Channel 2. I never used the words ‘sovereignty’ or ‘Israel.’”
Hanna Issa, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian Committee for the Defense of Jerusalem, claims that the Buraq Wall is part of the Haram al-Sharif compound. In a detailed, June 4 statement, Issa asserted that Jews have not always focused on the wall. He wrote, “The Jewish encyclopedia says that Jews only began praying at the wall in the Ottoman period. Also there is no proof that this wall is connected to the Jewish temple. Jewish archaeologists and others brought in by Jews were able to reach the foundation rock and couldn’t find any evidence of its connection to the temple.”
A resolution passed in 2016 by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses the construct “Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall,’” which many Israelis believe represents a refusal by the agency to recognize the Jewish connection to the wall. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Issa argued that UNESCO has accepted the Palestinian and Muslim position, stating, “The 144 dunums that make up the Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site, includes the Buraq Wall.”
Regardless of the archaeological and religious controversy, the fact remains that the gist of Rajoub’s interview on Israeli television is not far from the positions that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spoke of during the Camp David II talks in 1999.
Lior Lehrs, an Israeli Institute post-doctoral fellow at New York University, deals extensively with this issue in his published research on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. His paper “Jerusalem on the Negotiating Table: Analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks on Jerusalem (1993–2015)” appeared in the October 2016 issue of the journal Israel Studies. In it, Lehrs explains how the Western Wall and the Tower of David were subjects of dispute during the Camp David talks. “Israel’s demand regarding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount was raised for the first time at Camp David,” he wrote.
Former Israeli minister and senior negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami also mentions the issue on page 375 of his book “A Front Without a Rearguard” (available only in Hebrew). According to Ben-Ami, he proposed “full Palestinian sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif in exchange for Palestinian public recognition of the sacred nature of the place for the Jewish people and a Jewish prayer area within a delineated compound and under the supervision of a body agreed upon by both sides.”
According to Lehrs, while Ben-Ami’s colleagues were surprised by the offer, the Palestinian delegation rejected it. Lehrs also says, “[The] Palestinians agreed to Israeli sovereignty only over the ‘Wailing Wall’ [196 feet], not over the entire Western Wall [1,541 feet including the Western Wall tunnel] as Israel demanded.”
A senior Palestinian negotiator told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that in negotiations, it is accepted that “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.” Issa acceded to Al-Monitor that in negotiations, all sides say many things, but he insisted, “It is a mistake to fall into the trap of making a public pronouncement that deviates from the official line before there is a final agreement.”
In a June 6 interview with Palestine TV, Rajoub revisited the issue of Jerusalem. He stated, “Our struggle is national, not religious. Jerusalem — not me nor Fatah nor Palestinians can decide its future. We have an official relationship with Jordan and Morocco, which have special roles as to the status of Jerusalem. We believe, and I believe, that East Jerusalem must be under Palestinian sovereignty. We also believe it should be open to all three religions.”
The holy sites, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem, are a hotly contested issue regardless of when and where they are discussed. At no time is it easy for a Palestinian leader to say anything that deviates from entrenched positions, which both sides hold. Rajoub might have stirred dormant waters in his public statement, and he was blasted for it. This makes it even harder for any leader to address this and other controversial issues in the public sphere.