JERUSALEM - Negotiations over a disputed Jerusalem holy site are failing to take into account its central role in the end-times prophecies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike - or to calm those who want to see the prophecies played out, an Israeli author warns.
"People's beliefs are a strategic fact when you're dealing with Jerusalem, the Holy Land and the Temple Mount," said Gershom Gorenberg, an expert on apocalyptic beliefs.
Backed by senior Israeli security officials, Mr. Gorenberg warns that a U.S. proposal for Israel to cede the sacred hilltop, known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, could spur extremists to desperate action.
The holy site at the center of peace talks and prophecy lies in a corner of Jerusalem's Old City, 36 walled acres on which early Islam raised gleaming mosques over the ruins of Judaism's two biblical Temples. It's Islam's third most holy site, Judaism's first.
It's also the single stage on which three different plays unfold - the final-days beliefs of the world's major monotheistic faiths, Mr. Gorenberg writes in a new book, The End of Days.
And for Christian and Jewish end-timers, Israel's proposed concession of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians threatens to rewrite the ending to what they see as a divine script:
For Jews, the day a third Temple rises on the site of the old is inextricably linked to the coming of the Messiah.
In Christian end-time theology, Jews' construction of the third Temple would be another ordained step toward the Antichrist, the Apocalypse and the Second Coming - as was the founding of the state of Israel itself.
Some Muslim believe that Jerusalem will be the field for the final battle between good and evil, Mr. Gorenberg says.
Two former Israeli security officials recently warned Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the possible danger in negotiations over the site's fate. Assaf Hefetz, former national police commissioner, and Carmi Gilon, ex-chief of the security agency Shin Bet, wrote Mr. Barak that an extremist attack on the hilltop's mosques would likely "lead to all-out war and unleash destructive forces that would imperil Israel's existence."
"A single fanatic can bring horrible things on us," warned Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, overseer of the Temple Mount's adjacent Western Wall.
Some of Israel's leading rabbis opened a recent TV panel discussion on the subject with a clip from a 1999 apocalyptic movie, The Omega Code, showing a terrorist blasting away the hilltop's gilded Dome of the Rock.
One of the panelists, Yehuda Etzion, said he believed that one day the mosques would be razed, but he stopped short of saying he and his followers would do it themselves. "There will come a day when the mount will be purified," said Mr. Etzion, who served four years in prison, in part for plotting to blow up the hilltop's Al Aqsa Mosque.
"How this will happen, who will do it and when he will do it - I don't know," Mr. Etzion said. "But ... the mount will be purified. That means that the mosques will be removed from it."
Israel's chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, calls the proposal that Israel cede sovereignty of the site "sacrilege" but condemns suggestions of attempts on the mosques. "The Temple will be built, soon, in our days - not at the cost of bloodshed," Rabbi Lau said.
Christians who believe the founding of Israel is prophecy fulfilled say the hilltop cannot be entrusted to Muslims. The Israelis "go against their own Scriptures if they don't (keep the mount)," said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, a staunchly pro-Israeli group.
History proves the volatility of the site, which Israel left in the Palestinians' day-to-day control when it took east Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
In 1929, after Jews raised the blue-and-white flag of the Zionist movement at the Western Wall, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed in the 1´ weeks of rioting that followed. In 1996, Israel's opening of a tunnel just outside the compound sparked riots that killed 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis.
Right-wing Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon's Sept. 28 visit to the compound, in the center of a phalanx of Israeli police, touched off the current Israeli-Palestinian clashes.
And in early January, a rally against President Clinton's Temple Mount proposal drew an estimated 200,000 Israelis to the walls of the Old City - one of Jerusalem's largest gatherings in modern times.
Any lasting Mideast peace deal will have to take the divergent views on Jerusalem's hilltop shrine into account, Mr. Gorenberg says.
"You (could) declare it to be under divine sovereignty," Mr. Gorenberg said, citing one proposal. "And then each side can say, `Well! I won! - It belongs to God - and, obviously, my God."'