Perhaps the most divisive figure in American presidential politics wants to visit one of the most disputed places in the entire world.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Donald Trump is planning to visit Jerusalem’s Temple Mount during an announced visit to Israel later this month.
Trump, the front-runner in national polls for the Republican presidential nomination, has drawn criticism for his proposal to temporarily ban all immigration and even travel of Muslims to the United States.
The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam. The site of Jewish ritual sacrifices and two Jewish Temples nearly 2,000 years ago is also where Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during the Night Journey described in the Koran.
For more than 1,300 years, the Mount, which lies on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Old City, has been the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
The visit of a controversial figure to a place that Muslims know as the “Haram al-Sharif,” or the Noble Sanctuary, would be provocative even without the site’s recent history of volatility.
Ever since Israel captured the Jordanian-occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East war, religious activities, building access, and construction both atop and inside of the Temple Mount has been under the control of an Islamic religious trust, even though Israeli border police still control entry and access points.
Jordan also has a loosely defined “special role” in overseeing Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites under the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.
Successive Israeli governments have actively banned Jewish worship at the site and reaffirmed a status quo that limits any kind of Jewish access. Since October, members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, have even been prohibited from visiting the site.
But increased demands for access have fed longstanding Muslim anxieties that Israel plans on opening the site for Jewish prayer, or intends to replace the site’s mosques with a Jewish temple. Tensions over the Temple Mount are one spark for the recent — though ebbing — wave of violence throughout Israel and the West Bank.
Experts told Business Insider that a Trump visit to the Temple Mount would be unlikely to spark a regional crisis — even though a visit would still carry some very real risks.
“Such a visit would bring Al-Aqsa/Haram back into the public consciousness after a month of relative quiet there, generally stoke tensions, and could lead to sporadic unrest in/around the Old City,” Neri Zilber, a journalist and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider in an email.
“You never quite know what Trump is going to say, which is a liability,” he added. “It’s unlikely he’ll all of a sudden turn into a statesman simply because he’s on an overseas trip.”
Zeri believes that Israeli authorities will likely try to dissuade Trump from visiting the site.
Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum and a Middle Eastern affairs blogger, agreed.
“I am sure that the Israeli government will work very hard behind the scenes to discourage a Trump visit to the Temple Mount, and ultimately I expect there to be some official reason why the logistics or practicality or schedule does not permit it,” Koplow predicted. “Should it happen, it would spark protests and much invective.”
Koplow doesn’t think a Trump Temple Mount visit will spark a broader uprising among Palestinian Muslims.
“As much as Trump is an offensive bloviator, a visit by him to the Temple Mount does not speak to the issue of Israeli sovereignty or alleged plans to replace Al-Aqsa with the third Temple, and thus it is far less explosive than a visit by someone like Prime Minister Netanyahu or [Education Minister] Naftali Bennett,” Koplow told Business Insider in an email.
It would not be “consequence-free though,” Koplow said.
“A Trump visit would … feed into a strong anti-Israel and anti-Zionist narrative that accuses Israel of racism toward Arabs and Muslims, given Trump’s abhorrent comments about barring Muslims from the US,” he said.
The Temple Mount isn’t the only risk that Trump’s visit raises for Israel, and particularly for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to The New York Times, Trump will meet with Netanyahu on December 28.
Netanyahu has often been accused of attempting to influence US domestic politics in favour of Republican opponents to President Barack Obama. And it’s possible Netanyahu would meet with Trump to avoid any further impression of favouring one US presidential candidate over any others.
Zilber, the adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes that such a show of even-handedness would be ill-advised for the Israeli prime minister.
“On face value, Bibi might actually believe — mistakenly in this case — that Israel shouldn’t be the arbiter of which US presidential candidates are acceptable and which aren’t,” Zilber said.
In Zilber’s view, any official meeting with Trump threatens to damage Israel’s international standing.
“All you have to do is look at the UK petition calling on banning Trump, or a major Gulf department store chain pulling Trump products, or the reaction in this country to his recent comments, to see how out of step Israel will be on the Trump issue,” Zilber said of the appearance of an official Israeli sanction for Trump’s visit.
“Israelis rightly pride themselves on the country’s liberal and inclusive ethos, in particular with the Arab-Israeli (i.e. Muslim) minority, who serve in high military positions, on the Supreme Court, and in the Knesset.”
Netanyahu might believe there is a possible domestic benefit to meeting Trump. Netanyahu is a notoriously cagey center-rightist who is loathed by much of Israel’s center and left yet deeply distrusted by its powerful nationalist and religious right. Meeting amid protests from political opponents could help Netanyahu project strength to his never totally secure right flank. But such political manoeuvring might could come at a cost to Israel.
Said Koplow: “This is a situation that carries lots of downside and no obvious upside.”
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