Israeli leaders can still contain Temple Mount crisis, but require political courage
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Analysis

Israeli leaders can still contain Temple Mount crisis, but require political courage

The escalating violence brings to mind the events of September 2000, after opposition leader Sharon visited the Mount, but with a few significant differences

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians run away from tear gas thrown by police officers outside Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, July 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Palestinians run away from tear gas thrown by police officers outside Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, July 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The decision taken overnight Thursday-Friday to leave the electronic metal detector gates at the entrances to the Temple Mount compound — placed there after the July 14 attack in which three Arab Israelis shot dead two police officers with guns they had smuggled onto the holy site — may prove to be one of those critical diplomatic errors which could have lasting regional repercussions.

The Israel Police, and the Jerusalem District specifically, which supported leaving the metal detectors in place, are indeed responsible for handling events around the Temple Mount, Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. But they do not have the ability to handle or prevent terror attacks in the West Bank or a potential escalation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and certainly not to grapple with a diplomatic crisis with neighboring countries such as Jordan and Egypt.

The recommendation of the military and the Shin Bet security service that the detectors should be removed did not stem from any lack of recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, or from a fear of mass demonstrations around Jerusalem. Their concerns related to the consequences of demonstrations and riots in the area on larger arenas – such as the West Bank, Gaza, and of course the international community, particularly in the Middle East.

To be precise, they were concerned that confrontations, particularly ones that caused deaths, would “inspire” Palestinian youths to head out and carry out so-called “lone-wolf” terror attacks such as those we have witnessed all too often since October 2015.

You don’t need to be a Middle East expert to see the direction in which the winds are blowing. Recent Israeli history shows there are places and times where it is better to be smart than right, particularly where the Temple Mount is concerned.

Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, September 28, 2000. (photo credit: Flash90)
Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, September 28, 2000. (photo credit: Flash90)

On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon entered the compound. Then-prime minister Ehud Barak knew it was right to let Sharon visit the Mount. Sharon was, after all, the head of the opposition, and Israel holds sovereignty over the holy site. But it wasn’t necessarily the smart thing to do. There were many warnings issued at the time against Sharon’s visit — from Fatah, Hamas, top Israel intelligence chiefs and the Palestinian Authority chief at the time, Yasser Arafat. The latter visited Barak at his home on September 26 for dinner. He asked Barak to prevent the visit. Barak, who feared appearing to have capitulated to Palestinian pressure, allowed it to go ahead.

Two days later I watched from the roof of the Waqf offices above one of the entrances to the compound as Sharon made his visit, escorted by hundreds of security personnel. Thousands of Palestinians were waiting for them there. After half an hour, the visit ended, and other than a few pushes and scraps, there were no extraordinary incidents.

But the Temple Mount is the Temple Mount. The explosion came the next day. On Friday, September 29, Palestinians started throwing rocks at worshipers at the Western Wall below. The Jerusalem Police chief at the time, Yair Yitzhaki, took a rock to the head and was rushed to hospital. His deputy ordered officers to break into the Temple Mount compound and authorized live weapons-fire. Within minutes seven were dead and dozens were wounded, with everything broadcast live on Arabic and Palestinian television.

A moment to be a little less right and a little more smart

Hours later, the West Bank and Gaza erupted. The Second Intifada had begun.

The escalation on Friday is still far from being an intifada (uprising). There are several significant differences between 2000 and what’s happening now. For a start, the Palestinian public in general is less enthusiastic about launching mass protests. Even Friday’s bloody riots bore no resemblance to those events almost 17 years ago, when tens of thousands took to the streets across the West Bank. On the other hand, these days there is the threat of lone-wolf attackers, who carry out their assaults without any terror infrastructure behind them, and are harder to predict. Even without organizational support, these terrorists can easily carry out stabbing, shooting and or car-ramming attacks against Israelis.

Another major difference is that Arafat was quick in 2000 to ride the wave of violence and in essence encouraged the protests and terror attacks. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, may have announced on Friday a halt to contacts with Israel, but he is unlikely to stop security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces or end all economic ties to the Jewish state, and there is so far no indication that he has taken steps to do so. Abbas knows that such actions would cause great harm to the PA itself and his status within it.

A photo released by the Israeli military shows the scene of Friday's terror attack in a family home in the settlement of Halamish (IDF Spokesperson)
A photo released by the Israeli military shows the scene of Friday’s terror attack in a family home in the settlement of Halamish (IDF Spokesperson)

Nonetheless, if the Israeli government sticks to the decision to leave the detectors in place, instead of considering the wider interest – which is more about security than politics – even Abbas could opt for more drastic actions.

We are still far from the point of no return. The escalation that began Friday with intense rioting, three Palestinians killed, protests in almost every Arab capital — and then a horrific terror attack in which three Israelis were murdered in their home as they ate their Shabbat dinner — can and should be contained.

But to do this, courage is needed, and a willingness to be a little more smart and a little less right, even if this prompts criticism from certain hawkish circles. When it comes to the metal detectors — which are in any case not a hermetic security panacea — there are alternative, viable suggestions. But to implement them, the Israeli leadership will need to climb back down the tree, at the price of right-wing criticism.

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