The visiting Georgian prime minister at his side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Monday that he was working “determinedly and responsibly,” both to resolve the fresh standoff with Jordan over a shooting at the embassy compound and the ongoing bloody tensions surrounding the Temple Mount.
Few would doubt him. Of course the prime minister of Israel is doing everything in his power to end the crises quickly, safely and effectively.
The question, however, is whether such crises could have been avoided in the first place, were a little more determination and responsibility shown by Netanyahu and his government ahead of time.
Watching the descent into disaster these past 10 days has been like viewing a horrifying car crash in slow motion.
It has been widely reported that the Shin Bet security agency and the IDF were barely consulted ahead of the decision to install metal detector gates at the Temple Mount after the July 14 terror attack there. It has been widely reported that police chiefs and the public security minister did not believe the measure constituted a particularly significant step. It has been widely reported that Netanyahu failed to detail the metal detector plans when he spoke to Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the immediate aftermath of the attack, in which three Arab Israelis shot dead two police officers on duty just outside the compound with guns they had smuggled into the holy site. It has been widely reported that the Shin Bet and the IDF urged that the metal detector gates be removed ahead of July 21’s Friday mass Muslim prayers.
Whatever the truth of these various damning reports, some of which have been denied, a more “responsible” prime minister should surely have realized the inflammatory potential of the metal detector gates, particularly when installed in the way they were.
The very nature of the July 14 attack underlined that security measures at the Mount were inadequate. The murder weapons were smuggled into the holy site by the killers and an accomplice.
But Israel — by virtue of its own decisions 50 years ago — is not the only authority with a key role at this most incendiary of places. As I wrote on Tuesday, when looming catastrophe was already entirely plain for all with eyes open to see, Israel initiated a staggering compromise when it captured the Temple Mount in 1967: it immediately relinquished religious authority there, at the holiest place in Judaism, to the previous occupiers, the Jordanians and their Waqf religious council, while retaining overall security authority.
‘Conditioning access to a hallowed Muslim place of prayer on what was depicted as submission to the Jews was never going to be tenable’
A narrow, determinedly blinkered interpretation of that Israeli-instituted division of responsibility might allow Israel to claim that altering the means of access to the Mount does not constitute a breach of the so-called status quo. But a real world approach, a responsible approach, an approach to serve all interests — most emphatically including Israel’s — required careful consultation over the new measures with the Jordanians, and with the Palestinian leadership for that matter.
It did not take a genius to predict that Israel high-handedly installing new access gates to the third holiest shrine in Islam would not be well-received by Muslims, so filled with enmity to Israel and to Jews by so many of their political and religious leaders. Israel was perceived to be placing a new checkpoint in front of the mosques. Symbolically and to a large extent practically, it was conditioning access to a hallowed Muslim place of prayer on what was depicted as submission to the Jews. That was never going to be tenable. The same or similar measures, instituted in partnership with the Muslim authorities with whom Israel has managed to engineer a working relationship, however uneasy, for decades, might have been received differently. Tensions might not have escalated in the way that they have. The optics matter. Responsible leadership would know and care about that.
Responsible leadership has other dimensions too. It required intervening long ago with the Jordanian authorities, who have whipped up their people into hostility against Israel while privately enjoying the benefits of economic and security relations with Israel (as detailed here by Avi Issacharoff). To his credit, by contrast, Netanyahu has sought to muster leverage to work against the incitement to violence by the Palestinian Authority that so directly contributes to acts of terrorism such as the brutal killings of the Salomon family at Halamish on Shabbat eve.
Responsible leadership necessitated a far firmer line with the Israeli inciter-in-chief Raed Salah, head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, who has for years disseminated false assertions that Al-Aqsa is in danger — lies that fatally resonated with the three Israeli Muslims from his Umm al-Fahm catchment area who shot dead those two (Druze) police officers just outside the Mount on July 14.
Responsible leadership, incidentally, might also have issued orders to Israeli diplomatic legations in particularly sensitive locales to take additional security measures in these fraught times. Did furniture really have to be moved or fixed by Jordanian nationals in the Israeli Embassy compound precisely now, at the height of an already deadly standoff between Israel and Muslim officials, with anti-Israel demonstrations taking place nearby and Jordanian politicians at the forefront of the Israel-bashing?
Responsible leadership would also ensure that Israel had a foreign minister in place with the time to helm discussions on such seemingly minor but actually significant matters. And would insist on having a defense minister with years of security experience. But Netanyahu, not conspicuously underworked, nevertheless insists on leaving the Foreign Ministry post vacant and handling that portfolio himself, and booted his irritatingly principled ex-chief-of-staff defense minister Moshe Ya’alon in favor of the populist, militarily inexpert Avigdor Liberman.
It won’t be easy to get out of this mess. As he works “determinedly and responsibly” to solve the impasse with Jordan, to calm the passions surrounding the Temple Mount, and to prevent any further deterioration, interest groups on all sides will be urging Netanyahu to hang tough and compromise, give the Jordanians hell and engineer a deal, leave those metal detectors right where they are and remove them.
So all power to Netanyahu’s crisis-management effort now. It’s his pre-crisis management that was so wanting.