WASHINGTON — The US ambassador to Israel clarified Wednesday that the Trump administration does not seek to impose a change to the status quo at Jerusalem’s ultra-sensitive Temple Mount that would allow Jews to pray there. The plan does not “impose any alteration of the status quo that is not subject to agreement of all the parties,” David Friedman told reporters in a telephone briefing.
At the same time, Friedman indicated that the administration would hope to see Jews being able to pray at the holiest place in Judaism, by agreement, within the framework of an eventual accord, as part of a new openness “to religious observance everywhere, including on the Temple Mount.”
Friedman was responding to an apparent contradiction in the terminology of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan that was published Tuesday after President Donald Trump had unveiled his proposal at a White House gathering together with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Under the current 52-year-old status quo, Muslims can pray at the site while Jews are allowed to visit — under heavy restrictions, in a predetermined route and only for several hours on weekdays — but not pray there.
The Trump peace plan calls for the status quo at the site to “continue uninterrupted.” And a “Conceptual Map” published in the document specifies that the “status quo over Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is preserved.”
But the document goes on to say that “people of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.”
An arrangement permitting Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount would likely have profound repercussions in the Muslim world. Israel has always denied intermittent claims by Palestinian and other Muslim critics that it intends to change the status quo and permit Jewish prayer on the Mount.
On Wednesday morning, the Jordanian Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Ministry warned against a “new reality” being applied to the Temple Mount. The ministry said that it publicized the statement in light of Israeli authorities entering the central parts of the Temple Mount and taking action to halt its operations at the site. But it was notably issued hours after the Trump plan was unveiled.
In his briefing Wednesday, Friedman acknowledged that “several people looked at the plan and found that it was somehow contradictory to the status quo.” He stressed, therefore, that “the status quo in the manner that it observed today will continue, absent an agreement to the contrary.”
“There is nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that is not subject to agreement of all the parties,” he went on. “So don’t expect to see anything different in the near future, or maybe in the future at all.”
“Having said that, as we point out, we would like the region, generally, to be more open and free with regard to the exercise of religion,” Friedman said. “We make that point clearly, that we would expect freedom of religion to be observed in Israel, in a Palestinian state, and elsewhere. Freedom of religion is one of the hallmark policies of the Trump administration. And so we would hope that the parties would agree, in terms of ultimate resolution of this conflict, to be more open to religious observance everywhere, including on the Temple Mount.”
Again, though, he concluded, “it is only something that will be changed through the agreement. If there isn’t an agreement, there won’t be any change.”
Located in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) or the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
At present, the holiest place where Jews can pray is adjacent to the Western Wall, an ancient retaining wall at the bottom of the esplanade.
The Palestinians, an official in Ramallah said Tuesday, consider the Western Wall to be “part and parcel” of the Haram al-Sharif. However, while the Jordanian Waqf Muslim trust is in charge of the Temple Mount, it has no control of the Western Wall, which is administered by the Israeli Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Since Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 war, it has allowed the Waqf to continue to administer the Temple Mount, and restricted Jews to visits there without prayer. This contrasts with arrangements at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, revered in Islam as the Ibrahimi Mosque, a site divided into Jewish and Muslim prayer times.
The relevant section (on page 16 of the “Peace to Prosperity” document released Tuesday), reads as follows:
“Unlike many previous powers that had ruled Jerusalem, and had destroyed the holy sites of other faiths, the State of Israel is to be commended for safeguarding the religious sites of all and maintaining a religious status quo. Given this commendable record for more than half a century, as well as the extreme sensitivity regarding some of Jerusalem’s holy sites, we believe that this practice should remain, and that all of Jerusalem’s holy sites should be subject to the same governance regimes that exist today. In particular the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should continue uninterrupted.
“Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshipers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.”