In the highest-level bid yet to calm tension over a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, Secretary of State John F. Kerry met Thursday in Jordan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II, and declared afterward that all involved wanted to "de-escalate" the situation.
At a news conference after the trilateral meeting, Kerry cited agreement among the parties on “the absolute need to uphold the status quo” — that is, to maintain long-standing agreements governing access to the site known to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. But neither he nor Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh disclosed specific measures that would be taken to quell increasing violence.
Kerry played down the absence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the evening meeting in Amman, the Jordanian capital, saying it was "not the right moment" for a face-to-face encounter with Netanyahu. In recent days, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have publicly and bitterly blamed each other for compounding the crisis, which has led to deadly attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Over the last several months, Jewish activists have sought to win the right to pray on the plateau in Jerusalem's walled Old City. That has brought an explosion of unrest among Muslims, who fear that Israel is trying to take over the site.
Israel captured the Old City, including the disputed site, from neighboring Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but almost immediately gave Jordan custody over the compound.
Earlier in the day, Abdullah held one-on-one talks with both Abbas and Kerry on escalating friction over the sacred plateau. The king called for an end to "repeated violations against the holy sites in Jerusalem," Jordan's official Petra news agency said.
Al Aqsa mosque, which is in the hilltop compound, is considered the third holiest site in Islam. Jews revere the mount as the site of their ancient temples.
A "status quo" in place for nearly 50 years allows Jews to visit the site but not to pray there. Some Israeli Cabinet ministers and members of the Israeli parliament have pushed for change in the arrangement, and stepped-up visits by religious Jews have triggered confrontations with Muslims who say they are defending the site.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will maintain the status quo.
With emotions running high, Abdullah has faced serious domestic fallout from challenges to Muslim primacy over the compound. Jordan withdrew its ambassador to Israel last week to protest demands for changes in the agreement. In Israel, mainstream rabbinical rulings have for many years called on devout Jews not to visit the compound, but to pray instead at the Western Wall, the plaza below.
The dispute has regionwide ramifications. The United States views Jordan as a key ally in the American-led coalition arrayed against the militants of Islamic State, who have seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and Jordan expects the Obama administration to use its influence with Israel to halt any provocative moves.
Israel's relations with Jordan were already fraught after the summer war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem in recent weeks has been the scene of near-daily street clashes in Arab-dominated neighborhoods, where sentiments are also inflamed over a growing Jewish presence in parts of the city the Palestinians seek to make the capital of their future state.
The State Department expressed deep concern over preliminary plans approved Wednesday by the Jerusalem municipality for 200 more housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Friction over the holy site were exacerbated when Israeli authorities late Wednesday announced plans to introduce enhanced security measures for those wanting to pray at Al Aqsa, including metal detectors and facial-recognition technology. Israel already routinely screens worshipers by age, sometimes permitting only men older than 35, or 50, to attend Friday prayers, the most important of the week.
Israel says the same security would apply to non-Muslim visitors to the compound.