In the aftermath of Obama’s May 19th speech, the awkward May 20th joint Obama-Netanyahu press briefing, and Obama’s May 22nd speech at AIPAC, it is clear that Netanyahu is trying to tamp down the impression that there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. He is not getting any help from Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. On the morning of May 22, Jerusalem City Engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, sent a letter to the Western Wall Heritage Fund demanding that the Mughrabi Ramp be demolished immediately due to structural problems, stating that if the Fund did not to so within 14 days, the Municipality would. For a copy of the letter, click here
. Israel Broadcast Authority radio reported that the Fund had responded that demolishing the ramp would cause diplomatic problems, but not demolishing it was dangerous.
The timing of this raises questions. This is clearly a choreographed leak. Given Netanyahu’s decision last week concerning settlements (link), it is not inconceivable that this is coordinated with him, but given his often strained relations with Barkat, this is not the most likely interpretation. It is more likely that Barkat (and not for the first time regarding Mughrabi) is trying to force Netanyahu's hand. Given Netanyahu's combative mode, it is not impossible that he will capitulate.
If Netanyahu does allow this to go forward, either because he was in on the leak from the start or because he decides that doing so is politically expedient, he will further embarrass the Obama Administration (which, probably due to the focus on the speech last week, at least publicly gave him a pass on the Jerusalem settlement approvals). The Obama Administration’s efforts to reassure the world that is it serious about peace will be directly challenged by an Israeli decision to demolish the Mughrabi Gate – bearing in mind that works around this gate in the past sparked rioting in the city and protests around the region. Israel’s actions on Mughrabi also contributed to early tensions in the Israel-Turkey relationship and are the single most important factor responsible for the erosion of official Israel-Jordan relations to the lowest point since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
It should be emphasized that a less controversial option is available to Israel, if the real goal here is to deal with safety. That would be to assess the situation in coordination with the Jordanians and Waqf authorities, and in coordination carry out the minimum necessary repairs, with discreet, joint supervision. Anything beyond this at this time can only be viewed as a deliberate provocation in one of the most sensitive location in the world.