The Temple Mount crisis — far from over, it’s really just beginning
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The Temple Mount crisis — far from over, it’s really just beginning

Op-ed: While the removal of the metal detectors and cameras was supposed to mark the end of the trouble, Abbas and Netanyahu have each found ways to bring their peoples right back to the peak of conflict

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.

Muslim worshipers shout slogans at the Lions Gate, outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Muslim worshipers shout slogans at the Lions Gate, outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although for a moment it seemed that the metal detector crisis had ended Monday night, with the removal of the electronic gates and cameras from the entrances to the Temple Mount, we are evidently still in the midst of an impasse that may last for quite some time.

Both sides, and especially the two leaderships, each for their own political reasons, appear to be exacerbating the situation, looking for confrontation rather than calm.

On the one side, there is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who, along with his Fatah movement, explicitly called Tuesday for an escalation of the struggle and for large-scale demonstrations against Israel on Friday. This seems to be an attempt to extricate the PA leader from the depths of irrelevance.

On the other is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemed to be profoundly impacted by the results of Tuesday’s Channel 2 survey, which indicated deep public dissatisfaction with his response to the Temple Mount crisis. Hours after the poll’s publication, he ordered the Defense Ministry not to evacuate some 120 settlers who illegally occupied a contested home in Hebron, in addition to instructing police to individually check every worshiper ascending to pray at the Temple Mount — a decision perceived by the Palestinian public as a declaration of war.

Israeli security forces take down metal detectors at the Lions Gate, near a main entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 24, 2017. (AFP/ Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli security forces take down metal detectors at the Lions Gate, near a main entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 24, 2017. (AFP/ Ahmad Gharabli)

Both sides continue their gallop toward a deeper, bloodier confrontation, and there is no responsible adult in the room to stop the deterioration.

Anyone who may have expected Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to intervene in the police’s war against the security establishment, or perhaps speak out against Netanyahu’s decisions of late, has quickly learned that a country long acclimated to operating without a foreign minister has also functioned for the past two weeks without a defense chief. The man simply does not exist.

The indications that the crisis is far from over are evident on several levels. First, Tuesday’s demonstrations by Muslim worshipers, which spiraled into violence outside the entrances to the Temple Mount, involved thousands of demonstrators refusing to enter the Al-Aqsa compound despite all of their demands being met. Asked what exactly they were protesting at that point, their responses were as absurd as something you might hear on a TV sitcom.

The problem here is that the statements made by demonstrators, Muslim religious leaders and the Palestinian leadership are not funny. And the person most responsible for setting the tone at this stage is the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, who of all the Jordanian Waqf members is the furthest from being a representative of Amman.

Muslim worshipers perform noon prayers at the Lions Gate, outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City on July 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Muslim worshipers perform noon prayers at the Lions Gate, outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hussein, who receives his salary from the Palestinian Authority, announced early Tuesday afternoon that Muslim prayer would continue to be held outside the Temple Mount. When asked why, he explained that only when the situation was restored to the way it was before July 14 would the worshipers return to the Haram al-Sharif.

The fact that there are no longer any metal detectors or security cameras did not prevent him and his followers from conjuring a list of new demands: “removing invisible cameras,” removing cameras overlooking the Temple Mount, removing barricades still lying around the Old City, the planting of trees on the Al-Aqsa compound, etc. It is as if “someone” is trying to invent demands in order to exacerbate the situation, and is unfortunately succeeding in doing so.

The second indication relates to Abbas.

On Tuesday, the PA president gathered the leadership of the Jerusalem branch of Fatah’s militant Tanzim faction at his office in Ramallah. He understood that Israel had pulled the rug from underneath him when it removed the metal detectors and that he and his Fatah movement were accordingly in extreme political distress.

If in the past Abbas was considered weak, now many in the Palestinian public consider him to be simply irrelevant. He was not part of the erupting crisis on the Temple Mount, nor was he involved in efforts to solve it. The Jordanians, according to a senior Palestinian source, did not even update the PA leadership regarding the arrangement it had reached with Israel to remove the metal detectors and cameras.

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Consequently, it seems that the Palestinian leadership’s decision to escalate the struggle is intended to convey a message not only to Israel but also to Jordan: Anyone who tries to ignore us or erase our role with regard to the Temple Mount will receive an intifada in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. What we are therefore now seeing is a struggle for survival by Abbas and his Fatah movement.

Abbas has given a green light to the Tanzim faction to organize demonstrations and rallies this Friday, but no one knows how they will end. This quite easily could lead to shooting battles with IDF soldiers, casualties, deaths and even a scenario, mentioned more than once in recent years, which includes all the ingredients necessary for an intifada. It certainly won’t end well.

Of course, Netanyahu is central to this story as well. It is hard to understand his decision Tuesday. Just the night before, the cabinet decided to remove the metal detectors in order to calm tensions. But less than a day later, Netanyahu announced that he had ordered manual inspections of all worshipers. If before there was no fuel or spark, Netanyahu has now provided it. The top headline Wednesday morning in Israel Hayom, Netanyahu’s home-court newspaper, makes it clear what his patron Sheldon Adelson thinks about him, and the prime minister is feeling politically threatened.

The survey conducted by Channel 2 yesterday indicating that more than 70% of Israelis disapproved of the government’s handling of the current crisis and had supported the installation of the metal detectors in the first place made it clear to Netanyahu where the political winds were blowing. From this, the decision to order manual inspections was made accordingly.

Was the prime minister’s decision made with the knowledge of the Shin Bet security service and the IDF? Doubtfully so. But they, as with the embassy crisis in Jordan, will be forced to put out the fires Netanyahu has created, nonetheless.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Abir Sultan)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Abir Sultan)

One last factor that needs to be raised as it is hardly addressed: the Palestinian public. Many on the Israeli side are now saying, rightfully, “It’s not about the metal detectors.” The detectors were the excuse. They were the magic word that called forth the religious and nationalistic demons that the defense establishment has feared for so long.

And now go try and put the genie back in the bottle. Go try and calm the Palestinian public in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These are people who have long been frustrated with the status quo and who have long looked toward their leadership without finding a sympathetic ear.

The Palestinian Authority was the finger in the dike for all those years, holding back a general collapse at a much more violent level. It prevented widespread demonstrations during the recent prisoners’ strike and arrested hundreds of suspects planning on carrying out terror attacks in recent years. Now the Palestinian public is hearing its leadership speak in a different voice — one of escalation and confrontation. Hence the great danger. If something dramatically positive does not happen in the next few days, we may find ourselves marching into the abyss.

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