On Temple Mount, Israel long since made its fundamental compromise
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Arabs killed Arabs at a holy site, the Jews are trying to ensure that it doesn't happen again, and the Arab world is furious with the Jews about it

On Temple Mount, Israel long since made its fundamental compromise

Op-ed: Rightly or wrongly, the Jewish state voluntarily gave up control of its holiest place 50 years ago; any tweak it makes now to try to prevent a new wave of violence is marginal by comparison

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Waqf officials lead Muslim prayers outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on July 16, with metal detector gates in the background. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Waqf officials lead Muslim prayers outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on July 16, with metal detector gates in the background. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Less than three days. That’s what Israel likely has, at most, to resolve the fraught standoff at the Temple Mount.

If it’s not solved by Friday, when many thousands of Muslim worshipers will converge on the Old City for Friday prayers, we’ll need to brace for violence worse than the relatively low-level clashes around the site in the past few days.

It’s outrageous, of course. But saying so doesn’t solve anything.

It’s outrageous that in parts of the Muslim world, Israel is being castigated for installing metal detectors designed to boost security at the holiest place in the world for Jews and the third holiest for Muslims. Don’t they want security there?

It’s outrageous that many of those who are castigating Israel for ostensibly “changing the status quo” at the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa Mosque compound are doing so without so much as mentioning the murderous attack that defiled the holy site and prompted the deployment of the metal detectors: On Friday, three Muslims — Israeli Arab Muslims — emerged from the compound, guns blazing, and shot dead two Border Police officers who were stationed on duty immediately outside. The two victims just so happened to be Druze — an Arabic-speaking monotheistic community incorporating many Islamic teachings. To put it really crudely then, Arabs killed Arabs at a holy place, the Jews are trying to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and the Arab world is furious with the Jews about it. (As the footage below shows, one of the victims has his back to the compound as the gunmen emerge; he was there to protect them from outside attack.)

It’s outrageous that Jordan, which occupied the Old City before Israel captured it in 1967, and which Israel permitted to continue to administer the Temple Mount compound via the Waqf religious trust ever since, has been leading the public criticism of Israel. Surely Jordan should be leading the calls for better protection at the hallowed site. Surely Jordan should be apologizing for its refusal in the past to allow for security cameras to be placed at multiple locations on the Mount, as part of Israeli-urged precautions that might have prevented Friday’s attack.

Protesters chant slogans in the Jordanian capital Amman on July 15, 2017 during a demonstration against the closure of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Israeli security forces closed a day earlier after Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen in the Holy City. (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Protesters chant slogans in the Jordanian capital Amman on July 15, 2017 during a demonstration against the closure of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Israeli security forces closed a day earlier after Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen in the Holy City. (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)

It’s outrageous that the deployment of metal detectors outside the compound is being misrepresented as a change to that post-1967 status quo, when Israel since 1967 has always maintained overall security responsibility for the site, and when Friday’s events manifestly demonstrate the imperative for improved security.

The religious custodians of the third most holy place in Islam self-evidently loathe the notion of what they portray as a submission to those Jewish-overseen security checks more than they cherish the right to pray there

It’s outrageous that the metal detectors are deemed unacceptable when religious sites the world over are secured in exactly the same way, for exactly the same unfortunately necessary reasons. There is high security around key Islamic sites, notably including at Mecca and Medina. There is high security, including metal detectors, around the Western Wall plaza, immediately below the Temple Mount, imposed by Israel on all Jews and non-Jews who enter that area. There have long been metal detectors at the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Temple Mount — the only access point for non-Jewish visitors.

It’s beyond outrageous that, since the compound was reopened by Israel on Sunday, after two days of security sweeps following Friday’s murderous attack, the Waqf officials have overseen what amounts to a boycott of their own holy places — insisting that Muslim worshipers not enter the Al-Aqsa compound so long as the metal detectors remain in place. The religious custodians of the third most holy place in Islam self-evidently loathe the notion of what they portray as a submission to those Jewish-overseen security checks more than they cherish the right and opportunity to pray there.

But, again, saying all that doesn’t change anything. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that all hell could break loose on Friday unless there’s some rapid, smart thinking.

So here’s a thought. How about some dialogue?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Jordan in January 2014 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Jordan in January 2014 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO/FLASH90)

How about Israeli officials talking with Jordanian officials and trying to figure out a viable way forward, capitalizing on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s phone conversation with King Abdullah soon after the terror attack on Friday? It may well be that such contacts are already in full swing. And while it’s hard to say what formula might be found — Israel is not about to remove the metal detectors, and the Waqf is not about to reverse its refusal to have Muslim worshipers walk through them — it’s blindingly obvious that no formula will emerge unless people put their heads together. Netanyahu prides himself on warm relations with Abdullah, who holds overall responsibility for the Waqf, and who on Friday condemned the attack (even as he demanded that the Mount be reopened). That’s a useful start when you’re urgently seeking to restore and maintain calm.

Why on earth, one might ask, should Israel negotiate with anybody about vital security arrangements, at a site over whose status, moreover, it has already compromised to an astounding degree? Israel, after all, claims sovereignty in the Old City, yet it bars Jews from praying at the Mount, and consented to ongoing Muslim administration there.

And therein lies the answer. Israel chose not to fully realize its control over the Temple Mount in 1967 because it sought to avoid holy war with the Muslim world over this most contested and incendiary of places. It used a very convenient pretext to ban Jewish prayer there: the rabbinic consensus that forbids Jews from setting foot on the Mount for fear of inadvertently defiling the site of the Biblical Temples’ Holy of Holies. It opted for compromise.

No concession, agreed by Israel in negotiations to resolve the current standoff, could come close to matching that most dramatic of compromises half a century ago, in which the revived Jewish nation, having defeated its enemies in a war foisted upon it and liberated the most sacred place in its religious heritage, promptly relinquished its religious rights there to the representatives of its vanquished enemies.

Gen. Uzi Narkiss (left), Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War (photo credit: Ilan Bruner/Wikipedia)
Gen. Uzi Narkiss (left), defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War (photo credit: Ilan Bruner/Wikipedia)

And no compromise agreed to by Israel today could compare in its repercussions to the impact of that agreement 50 years ago, which has empowered a Palestinian and wider Muslim false narrative that asserts the Jews actually have no connection to the Mount, no history there, no legitimacy there — and by extension no sovereign legitimacy in Israel either. Why did defense minister Moshe Dayan’s concession on June 10, 1967, fuel that false narrative? Because, the way it was perceived in much of the Muslim world, the Jews could not and would not have relinquished their authority over the site if it truly constituted the most sacred physical focal point of their faith. Israel’s restraint, its religious realpolitik, in other words, has come to be regarded as proof of our illegitimacy. And of our duplicity. We were not the returning liberators; we were interlopers, who could and would be resisted until we returned to whence we ostensibly came.

Why get into all that decades-old history again now? Why focus on Israeli forbearance half a century ago, and decades of Muslim delegitimization, when we’re grappling with immediate dangers swirling around the Temple Mount? Because that’s what all of this is really about. Israel made its big-picture choice 50 years ago. It opted not to insist on religious freedom for Jews at the Temple Mount. Indeed, it opted not to insist on religious freedom at the Temple Mount, period. Israel deferred to Muslim sensitivities because of its perceived wider interests in working to normalize its very sovereign presence in the hostile Middle East.

Was that a historic mistake? Well, maybe it was, or maybe it was a vital, nation-saving imperative. It’s emphatically a question worth exploring. But the fact is that, today, right now, despite endless false assertions in the Muslim world to the contrary, there is no indication that the Netanyahu government intends to revisit that fundamental decision, no sign that it intends to reassert Israel’s fleeting full sovereignty at the Temple Mount.

In which case, it has less than three days, at most, to find an arrangement both sides can live with — to add one more tweak to that most dramatic of concessions from 50 years ago.

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