Over the recent Passover holiday (March 3 - April 7), activities focused on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif confirmed a number of important, and growing, trends. These trends have serious implications for security and stability not only at this sensitive site, but in Jerusalem as a whole and beyond, given the capacity for events at the site to spark much greater conflict. Specifically:
- Increasing number of Jewish visitors: The number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif reportedly reached new levels during Passover 2018. According to the Yaraeh organization (an organization encouraging Jewish ascension to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif) there were 2593 Jewish visitors - almost twice the number reported by that same organization during Passover 2017 (see here for Yaraeh’s full report, in Hebrew). Although it is wise to treat Yaraeh’s figures with a grain of salt, given their agenda, Israeli police and the Waqf numbers tend to be similar and are confirmed by observers. Hence, based on Israeli and Palestinian sources, it is clear that the number of Jewish visitors is steadily growing as well as the number and size of organized groups of Jews authorized to enter the esplanade at once. These groups are organized by Temple Mount organizations, as well as by Jewish schools (yeshivas).
- Increasing tolerance for prayer by Jewish visitors: Israeli police have of late adopted a policy of refraining from preventing or reprimanding quiet prayer by Jews on the esplanade, electing to evict only those who raise flags, or raise their voices or visibly bow down while praying. The Yaraeh report notes proudly in its report that no Jewish visitors were arrested during Passover, in contrast to previous years, and there were no reports contradicting this claim. Notably, the Jerusalem court issued a ruling against the Israeli police for having arrested in September 2015 an activist for calling out “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the People of Israel live”), arguing that the slogan does not constitute a prayer and there are thus no grounds for the police prohibiting it being called out on the site. Jordan filed a complaint with the Israeli Foreign Ministry against the holding of Jewish prayer directly outside the esplanade gate, after a Jerusalem district court ruled that the police were not authorized to act against Jewish activists praying outside the gate.
- Passover sacrifice steps from the Temple Mount: For the first time since 1967, a Passover sacrifice, organized by Jewish religious activists, was authorized at the entrance of the Davidson Center, only meters away from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with the blessing of Jerusalem District Court. The ceremony, which included the slaughter of two lambs, was attended by senior national religious rabbis and MK Yehuda Glick (Likud), together with a reported 1500 activists. Over the past three years, the ceremony has been held each year at a location closer to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif - this year’s location was the culmination of this apparently deliberate, incremental effort. The holding of the ceremony so close to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif was condemned by Jordan, which filed a formal protest with Israeli Foreign Ministry; it was also condemned by the Imam of Al Aqsa Mosque, who called for mass protests.
(1) Israeli policy is changing. While the precise number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif are debatable, the trend toward ever-greater numbers of Jews ascending to the site -- both in the context of Jewish holy days and in general - is clear. Likewise, while there has been no formal announcement of a new Israeli policy regarding Jewish prayer at the site, empirical evidence suggests that the policy has changed. Taken together, these two trends illustrate Israeli authorities’ general shift in attitude towards Jewish visitors, in favor of opening the site up for greater Jewish access, facilitating Jewish visits, and granting Jewish visitors a degree of religious practice that is unprecedented since 1967. These trends are being fueled by pressure from Temple Mount organizations, who are taking full advantage to enlarge the scope and nature of Jewish presence on the Mount, and to demand further shifts in Israeli policy in favor of their unabashed goal of open Jewish control over and prayer on the Temple Mount.
(2) Israel appears to be less attentive to Jordanian concerns. Over the years, Jordan has periodically weighed in with concerns related to Jewish access to and prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. For many years, Jordan’s concerns were taken seriously by Israeli policymakers - indeed, in recent years Jordan was often the only party to which the Netanyahu was attentive when it came to Jerusalem. It was evident during the July 2017 metal-detector crisis that Netanyahu was far less attentive to Jordanian concerns than in the past, and it is possible today we are seeing a continuation of that trend. if It is unknowable whether this new attitude reflects Netanyahu’s domestic political concerns (and his desire to appease his far right-wing base), or whether it reflects a shift in Israeli political calculations (to a new geopolitical formula in which the Trump-Saudi Arabia axis eclipses Israeli relations with Jordan), or some combination of these and other factors. It is also possible that Jordan, so preoccupied with Syria, Iran, the influx of refugees and a precarious economy, does not see itself at liberty to engage Netanyahu as forcefully as in the past. What is clear is that where in the past Jordan could play an important role in putting the brakes on Israeli policies in Jerusalem that had the potential to ignite the city, this currently appears to be less the case.
(3) Netanyahu’s remaining restraint may be in doubt. On the eve of Passover, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to continue preventing entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to members of the Knesset, for security reasons, through the end of Ramadan (around June 14). As a result, MK Yehuda Glick (Likud) was refused entry to the site during Passover. However, the steady increase in the number of Jewish visitors and the fact that these visits took place without clashes raises the question: will Netanyahu continue to resist pressure for a shift of policy in regard to the visits of Israeli members of Knesset - like the recent calls by MK/Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) and MK Shuli Muallem (Jewish Home), who sought to enter the esplanade as part of Israel’s remembrance day ceremonies? As Netanyahu’s own political situation becomes more dire, the chances that he will give in to pressure increases.
(4) Was the Status Quo violated? There have long been disagreements between Israel, Palestine, Jordan and other Arab states regarding both what constitutes the Status Quo and what constitutes a violation thereof. In the past, Jordan and other Arab states repeatedly claimed the Status Quo was being violated, while Israel consistently claimed that it was being maintained. And in the past, both positions were justifiable: Israel could reasonably claim that, technically, the Status Quo was being maintained, as it enforced a prohibition on Jewish worship and imposed strict visiting hours on Jewish ascending the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (indeed, back in October 2015, Netanyahu for the first time in his own voice even stressed that the Temple Mount would remain a site of exclusively Muslim worship); and Arab states could claim, accurately, that Israel was permitting changes at the site, with respect to the nature of Jewish visits and their frequency. As a result, the question, “Is the Status Quo being violated?” did not have a clear answer.
Recents developments, however, have answered this question, and rather emphatically. Without question, the scope, nature, frequency and especially provocative character of the Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have increased of late, in an unprecedented manner and with the active and tacit support of Israeli authorities. In effect, the site has been basically transformed from a Muslim place of worship that allows for dignified and respectful Jewish visit, into a place of open contention for religious and national visible dominance. The identities of the Jewish visitors leaves no doubt in regard to their aspiration and their attitude towards the integrity of the site.
Under these circumstances, it can no longer be argued that Israel is maintaining the Status Quo - however one might define it - on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Indeed, changing Israeli policy to discard the Status Quo is the openly-declared objective of Temple Mount activists and their supporters within the Knesset and Netanyahu government - and these same groups and individuals are not shy to brag about their success.
(5) Ripe for an explosion. Of late, most attention with respect to Israel-Palestine relations is focused, understandably, on Gaza or on the impending Embassy move. However, smart policymakers and analysts will also be keeping a close watch on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Today, the sense of euphoria and “victory-is-within-our-grasp” among Temple Mount activists and their supporters is unmistakable. At the same time, the rage, humiliation and threat felt by Muslim worshippers is as palpable as it is understandable (and justified). In short, the shifts described above are both fueled by and fueling trends of radicalization that, if not contained (by reversing the changes to the Status Quo), will inevitably lead to a convulsive explosion.