JERUSALEM - After four wars, a generation of terrorism and a bitter military occupation, the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is breathtakingly close. But overcoming the last differences may require a leap of faith.
Considering their positions of a decade ago, each side has made huge strides toward the other:
A majority of Israelis now acknowledge the Palestinians as a people with roots in land west of the Jordan River and not just as part of an Arab whole. Contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a group previously outlawed, is a normal government activity. Most Israelis accept the idea of an eventual Palestinian state covering most of the West Bank and Gaza. Many would also yield part of Jerusalem. Above all, Israelis have concluded that occupying hostile territory is not worth the price in violence and opprobrium.
For their part, Palestinians officially accept a Jewish state as fact. No longer fighting to conquer Israel, they are prepared to live within a fifth of the territory historically known as Palestine.
PLO leaders, who once sponsored spectacular and bloody acts of terror against Jews, now ferret out and jail zealots plotting large-scale attacks. The leadership grudgingly accept limits to statehood, including a ban on maintaining an armed force that could threaten Israel. And Palestinians appear resigned to the likelihood that most of their 3 million refugees won't be able to return to their homes.
But this is the Holy Land, where religion often has the last word. And so the final barrier, though physically small, is immense in its religious, cultural and historical importance. It's the Old City - or, to be more precise, a corner of it known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or "Noble Sanctuary."
The issue is who gets to call it theirs.
Both sides have an attachment almost beyond words. Israeli author Meron Benvenisti notes that "the places held sacred by the Jews are the same ones that are sacred to the Arabs of Palestine."
Jews revere the mount as the site of the first Temple, built by King Solomon, and the second, finished by King Herod. The destruction of the first by the Babylonians and the second, in the year 70, by the Romans holds painful lessons for religious Jews, who blame its downfall on internal division and a failure to obey Jewish law as well as external enemies.
An engineering marvel, the "mount" is a flat, 35-acre, age-defying rock plateau built by Herod's workers. Since the fourth century, Jews have gathered at one side of it to mourn the loss of the Temple, making the Western Wall Judaism's foremost shrine.
For Muslims, the same area is the third-holiest shrine, after Mecca and Medina, revered as the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended to paradise on a winged horse. On this high place, in the seventh century, they erected their first great religious building, the Dome of the Rock, a match in beauty for the mount's solidity.
The Dome conveys more than a hint of religious one-upmanship, for its eight-sided shape and gold-covered cupola outshine the city's churches. It also shelters the rock where Jewish tradition says that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, to show devotion to God.
Except for a period of less than a century, the Dome of the Rock and the neighboring Al-Aqsa mosque have drawn almost uninterrupted Muslim worship: "We have had complete sovereignty for the last 14 centuries, except for the period when the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem, and then the Muslims never rested until they regained sovereignty," says Mohamed Nuseibeh, deputy chairman of the Higher Islamic Council.
If continuity strengthened the Muslims' tie, exile and separation from Jerusalem deepened the Jewish commitment.
Over time, the issue of access to the holy sites deepened distrust between Jews and Arabs.
As a minority during most of the Ottomans' four-century rule in Palestine, which ended after World War I, Jews worshipped at the Western Wall under various restrictions and frequent harassment. Jewish influence grew when the British succeeded the Ottomans as rulers, but in 1929 disputes over access to the Western Wall helped spark riots in which 133 Jews and 87 Arabs were killed.
Jewish access to the Western Wall was cut off altogether after the 1948 Israeli-Arab war and for the next 19 years, when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem.
When Israel captured the Old City in 1967, Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan allowed Muslim religious authorities to retain authority over Muslim holy sites on the mount. But Israel destroyed an Arab neighborhood adjacent to the Western Wall - much as Jordan had earlier destroyed Jewish-owned properties. And since 1967, Israeli authorities have controlled access to the mount, sometimes limiting the number of Palestinians who can pray there.