In one of the last weeks before he leaves office, a tenure marked by controversy during the last three years, Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert this week toured the Western Wall and the adjacent excavations in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Areas that also have been the center of controversy.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 ordered the cutting of a new tunnel underneath the Western Wall — it exited at the Via Dolorosa, brought Arab claims that Israel was attempting to undermine the Temple Mount, and led to weeks of Palestinian rioting — the archaeological digs near Judaism’s holiest site have been a political and theological battleground.
Olmert reportedly has granted the Waqf, the Muslim custodians of the Temple Mount, permission to dig on the site without supervision of Israeli archaeologists. The last time this happened, the archaeologists say, the Waqf was caught disposing truckloads of dirt that contained artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods, in an effort to weaken Jewish claims to the Temple Mount.
Jewish and Muslim religious leaders claim sovereignty over the area, accusing each other of bad faith in conducting excavations.
On Tuesday, a few weeks before he becomes former prime minister upon the formation of a new coalition government, Olmert, who served as mayor of Jerusalem before re-entering national political life, received a personal tour of the area. He recited some prayers at the site, and placed a prayer in one of the wall’s cracks.