Israel has long sought to change the status of the Al Aqsa complex. Now, the recognition by the UAE and Bahrain could provide it cover.
The controversial normalisation deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in August and Bahrain last week has brought into sharp focus the future status of the Al Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
Embedded in the UAE and Bahraini agreements is the following paragraph: "As set forth in the Vision of Peace, all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem's other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths."
That wording has left some worried that it leaves the door open to a change in status for the Al Aqsa compound which also includes the al Haram al Sharif mosque. The 14 hectares of land is designated for Muslims to pray in, and is home to one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Israel only considers the al Haram al Sharif as a mosque, which it also calls the Al Aqsa mosque, and is only one section of the wider compound. Extremist groups in Israel have long sought access to the Al Aqsa compound, seeking to build a temple which would likely result in the iconic Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims, being demolished.
The wording in the agreement, according to some, allows for a future status change in the Al Aqsa compound which would allow Israel, the UAE and Bahrain to continue to maintain relations.
The move has been described as a “radical departure from the status quo” by the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem (TJ) which tracks developments in Jerusalem.
In a statement, TJ said that while the agreements could appear to the casual reader as a breakthrough “whereby Muslims will be allowed to pray at Al Aqsa, while the status quo on Haram al Sharif is being maintained. The truth is precisely the opposite.”
"According to Israel (and apparently to the United States), anything on the Mount that is not the structure of the mosque is defined as 'one of Jerusalem's other holy sites' and open to prayer by all - including Jews," the report added.
"This choice of terminology is neither random nor a misstep, and cannot [be] seen as anything but an intentional albeit surreptitious attempt to leave the door wide open to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, thereby radically changing the status quo."
The recent agreements signed by the UAE and Bahrain give Israel the political cover to argue that Arab countries have agreed to a change of status quo.
However, the change of status quo of the Al Aqsa compound is governed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which is controlled by Jordan. The UAE and Bahrain cannot alter anything on behalf of Palestinians.
In 2015, the then Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a formal declaration between King Abdullah of Jordan and Prime Minister Netanyahu which would clarify the status and responsibility of the Al Aqsa compound.
The agreement stated that “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount."
Since then, there has not been any attempt to move away from that agreement. A shift, in fact, could result in a rupture between Israel and Jordan, with the King of Jordan likely to face significant pressure from civil society and politicians not to accept an alteration of designation.
Israel, with the backing of the Trump administration, could walk away from the deal with Jordan. However, this could have significant implications for the ‘cold peace’ the two countries have enjoyed since 1994.