Temple Mount crisis saw PM failing under pressure and showed Abbas ready to go to war
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AnalysisThe police say they didn't negotiate with the Muslim Waqf. It's true. The police simply did what the Waqf told them to do

Temple Mount crisis saw PM failing under pressure and showed Abbas ready to go to war

Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount has clear limits. The dismal events of the past weeks underline that is smarter not to try to cross them

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.

Muslims celebrate outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, following Muslim leaders announcing a return to pray at the Temple Mount, after Israeli police removed all security measures it had implemented in wake of a terror attack at the holy site two weeks ago. July 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
Muslims celebrate outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, following Muslim leaders announcing a return to pray at the Temple Mount, after Israeli police removed all security measures it had implemented in wake of a terror attack at the holy site two weeks ago. July 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

The battle over the metal detectors was not ended by heads of state or terror chiefs. It was the officials of the Waqf — Jordanian employees and the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem mufti — who announced on Thursday morning that the status quo at the Temple Mount had been restored and that Muslims could come back and pray there. The strategic sheikhs. It was they who began the battle over the metal detectors 11 days ago, when they declared to the TV cameras that they would not be ascending to the Mount to pray so long as the metal detector gates were in place. And it was they who put an end to the episode.

On Wednesday, the Waqf’s legal representative had met with Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi and gave him the Waqf’s list of demands: the removal of some railings, five cameras, and some metal scaffolding intended to hold more sophisticated cameras in the future, and the reopening of five closed entrances to the Mount. One after the other, the srael Police dealt with each of those demands, all the while claiming that it was not negotiating with the Waqf. Actually, this was true. There was no negotiation. The police simply did what the Waqf told them to do.

As one of the Qaqf officials, Abdel Azim Salhab, summarized at a press conference he and his colleagues held on Thursday morning, “The Waqf is directly responsible and has the last word (when it comes to the Temple Mount). The occupation must not intervene.” And that is the bottom line here, however troubling: Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount has clear limits, and it is smarter not to try to cross them.

This crisis could have been resolved earlier. At first, Israel insisted that security precautions including the metal detector gates were necessary at the entrances to the Temple Mount. This came in the wake of the July 14 attack there in which three Arab Israelis shot dead two Israeli police officers just outside the compound using guns an accomplice had smuggled in to the holy site. Fairly quickly, however, it became clear that the cost of leaving the metal detectors in place was greater than the cost of removing them, and so a decision was belatedly made late on Monday that it was preferable to capitulate on this point.

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)

But then the Palestinian side climbed up the tree. First it was the Waqf, which insisted that removing the metal detectors was insufficient and held out for more. The Waqf didn’t merely want to see Israel concede; it wanted Israel humiliated. And therefore it came up with its list of trivial, marginal demands that perpetuated the crisis for another three days.

A changed Mahmoud Abbas

The most dramatic shift in this saga on the Arab side, however, relates to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In fact, Abbas’s policy shift these last few days is one of the most significant developments in years. With all due respect to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to the Hamas terror group which rules the Gaza Strip, which have followed a predictable line, Abbas’s stance is the most surprising and the most dangerous.

Ever since he took up his position in January 2005, Abbas’s stance on violence has been clear: he vehemently opposes it. He called on his people time and again not to use violence, not to declare an uprising. He even termed the PA’s security coordination with Israel “holy.” True, he didn’t tackle incitement against Israel, and he continued to pay terrorists in Israeli jails. But his role and that of his security agencies in the war against terrorism in the West Bank cannot be ignored. His people have thwarted hundreds of terror attacks in recent years. Many Israelis, including soldiers and settlers, owe their lives to him.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech during a meeting of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 21, 2017, during which he announced freezing all contacts with Israel. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech during a meeting of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 21, 2017, during which he announced freezing all contacts with Israel. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

But this week something changed. His announcement that he was halting that “holy” security coordination with Israel was not an empty declaration, despite some claims to the contrary. Security coordination did halt, with some exceptions.

Abbas decided to go to war. He didn’t use that phrase, but it was clear that if the Temple Mount had remained closed and the Fatah Tanzim had organized mass protests throughout the West Bank as was planned for Friday, with Abbas’s approval, this would lead to bloodshed and the potential for spiraling violence.

Abbas, at the age of 82, who had hitherto highlighted his commitment to seeking peace at every opportunity, changed his spots. And he did so, moreover, after Israel had decided to remove the metal detectors. Why now, of all times?

Apparently, Abbas is feeling extremely disappointed — by Israel, Jordan, Egypt and every other player, including the US — and was moved to desperation. The most stinging slap in the face came from the Jordanians, who allowed the return to Israel of security guard Ziv and the rest of the Israeli embassy staff after Sunday’s fatal incident there, and who reached understandings with Israel on the removal of the cameras and metal detectors, without so much as informing him. The PA was exposed in all its irrelevance and marginality. There was a sense that the Temple Mount was slipping out of its hands and falling under the exclusive handling of the Jordanians.

File: Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
File: Jordan’s King Abdullah II speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

To add to his woes, he has also been facing internal Palestinian forces that incessantly undermine him, namely Hamas and his ex-security chief and bitter rival Muhammad Dahlan.

In Gaza early Thursday there was a meeting of the Palestinian parliament, with representatives from Hamas and from Dahlan’s camp in Fatah, but no Abbas-backing Fatah members. Dahlan addressed the session by video link. Dahlan is continuing his efforts to reach an agreement with Hamas, with the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others, and with Abbas nowhere in the picture.

Out of all of this came Abbas’s decision to head into confrontation with Israel in order to salvage his political position. Thus the PA president on Wednesday told his deputy in Fatah, Mahmoud Al-Aloul, and Jabal al-Mheissen, who is responsible for the Tanzim on the Fatah central committee, to call the Tanzim into action for Friday. Anybody who knows about the Tanzim’s history knows what this involves — mass demonstrations, violence, and a high likelihood of the use of guns. Intifada, September 2000-style.

And then came Thursday morning’s announcement by the Wakf, the decision-makers in this crisis, that prayers would be resuming at the Temple Mount, again leaving Abbas marginalized. What could he demand now? What would his people demonstrate about when all the worshipers’ demands had been met? If there are no eleventh-hour dramas, the Palestinian Authority will also have to return to the status quo ante and resume its security coordination with Israel.

But even if it does, when the next crisis erupts, one should expect a more feisty Abbas who will not hesitate to send the masses into the streets. He was ready to do it once. He will presumably be readier still to do it again.

Netanyahu needs Arabists

As for the Israeli side, the developments of the last few days have further highlighted the problematic functioning of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at times of stress and crisis. Netanyahu will want to forget the past two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 25, 2017 meets with security guard 'Ziv,' who shot dead two Jordanians as he was being stabbed by one of them at the Israeli Embassy compound in Amman on July 23. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 25, 2017 meets with security guard ‘Ziv,’ who shot dead two Jordanians as he was being stabbed by one of them at the Israeli Embassy compound in Amman on July 23. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Things reached a nadir when a “police source,” talking to journalists on Thursday morning, put Netanyahu in his place. Netanyahu had leaked on Wednesday that he had instructed Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to ensure that all worshipers be manually checked before entering the Temple Mount compound. The police source’s response was that this instruction was not implementable. Or, to put it another way: forget it, it’s not gonna happen.

Apparently even the police recognized that the prime minister was attempting to determine Temple Mount policy on the basis of surveys — Channel 2’s poll on Tuesday night showed Israelis overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the removal of the metal detectors and the prime minister’s handling of the crisis — rather than security considerations.

Netanyahu zigged and zagged and ignored the warnings of the Shin Bet chiefs, the IDF and even cabinet colleagues like Construction Minister Yoav Galant, an ex-general who a week ago questioned the viability of using metal detector gates when tens of thousands are coming to prayer.

Netanyahu chose to heed the right-wing Twitterati who demanded that he not undermine Jewish sovereignty at the Temple Mount and uphold the self-respect of the State of Israel. Ultimately Netanyahu recognized the limits of power, but only after also causing damage to Israel’s foreign policy with his unfortunate handling of the Jordan embassy incident. The warm, televised reception he extended Tuesday to security guard Ziv — who, attacked by a Jordanian youth, opened fire in self-defense and killed his assailant and an innocent Jordanian — was akin to spitting in the face of the Jordanians. Plainly, Netanyahu engineered the welcome to help his own PR, but at the cost of damage to Israel. On Thursday morning, Jordanian media reported that Israel’s embassy diplomats would not be permitted to return to Amman until Ziv is indicted.

The Prime Minister’s Office evidently enjoys a surplus of advisers and experts on American affairs, Likud matters, economics and Israeli politics. But there is apparently a shortage of Arabic speakers who could have whispered in Netanyahu’s ear, just before the photo op with Ziv, Stop! This will cause serious harm to our relations with Jordan.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman before the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on March 13, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli leader to have under-performed. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman simply disappeared for the duration of the crisis. Normally so garrulous, Liberman was silent, and allowed everybody to blunder deeper into the quagmire. Were Israel to have a defense minister with more military and security experience, understanding and interest, such a voice would have been significant and might even have helped Netanyahu avoid some of the mistakes, the zigzagging, and the damage. Erdan and the police might also now better realize that the Shin Bet chiefs and IDF officers derided as alarmists and panickers actually do know a thing or two about security.

Unfortunately, one cannot argue with the conclusion of Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and his friends on the right: Israel’s deterrent capability has indeed been harmed in this crisis. The Palestinians — the public and the decision-makers — sense weakness on the part of the State of Israel, especially its prime minister. Sadly, nonetheless, the government’s capitulation became a necessity given the looming threat of bloodshed. Sometimes one has to know when to withdraw.

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