Israel, Saudis hold talks for Riyadh to join Temple Mount Waqf – report

Move comes amid reported concern in Amman over Turkish influence at the site and elsewhere in East Jerusalem

A man walks past the Dome of the Rock, in the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)
A man walks past the Dome of the Rock, in the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

Israeli and Saudi officials have been conducting secret talks since December, mediated by the United States, with the aim of integrating representatives from Riyadh onto the Islamic Waqf Council that controls the Temple Mount, the Israel Hayom daily reported Monday.

The move was said to come as Jordan is reportedly increasingly worried by the levels of Turkish influence in Palestinian affairs and matters concerning East Jerusalem.

Unnamed senior Saudi officials told Israel Hayom that “these are sensitive and covert contacts that were conducted in ambiguity and low intensity by a limited team of senior diplomats and security officials from Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia as part of the contacts to advance the [White House’s Middle East peace] plan.”

The Waqf, a Jordanian-appointed council, oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. It claims exclusive authority over the Temple Mount compound and says it is not subject to Israeli jurisdiction. Tensions often escalate at the site.

According to the report, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has changed his mind about altering the makeup of the Waqf after a series of protests last year and the reopening of the Gate of Mercy, a section just off the Al Aqsa Mosque plaza.

Palestinians take part in Friday prayers near the Golden Gate, or Gate of Mercy, in the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, on March 1, 2019. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

In February 2019, Jordan decided to bolster the central committee of the Waqf from 11 members to 18, and all seven additions were senior Fatah and PA members.

Israel Hayom said that the new delegates allowed Turkish Islamic organizations to establish organizations at the complex that were funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by Ankara, under the direct orders of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to the report, the new deal being negotiated would see Jordan retain custodianship of the Temple Mount, but Saudi Arabia would pump millions of dollars into Islamic organizations in East Jerusalem and at the site, and would apply diplomatic pressure for the Turkish organizations to withdraw.

A senior Arab diplomat, whose name and country of origin were not divulged in the report, told the newspaper that it was in the interests of Israel and the US to support Saudi Arabia so that the kingdom in turn gave its backing to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, bringing with it the support of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Jordanian King Abdullah II delivers a speech at the European Parliament on January 15, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Frederick Florin/AFP)

This change of heart by Jordan reportedly comes despite Abdullah saying at the start of last year that although he was under pressure to alter his country’s historic role as custodian of the Jerusalem holy sites, he wouldn’t change his position.

Middle East pundits have in the past suggested that Saudi Arabia was interested in taking over responsibility for the Temple Mount and the mosques within its compound.

Saudi Arabia is already the custodian of the two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, both within its territory.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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