THE STATUS QUO ON THE TEMPLE MOUNT/HARAM AL SHARIF: DODGING A BULLET (FOR NOW)
In our August 28 issue of Insider’s Jerusalem, we demonstrated how the normalization process with the UAE was being surreptitiously manipulated in order to radically change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, cautioning about the grave ramifications of such a move.
All indications were that a change in the status quo allowing for Jewish prayer on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mt. would be anchored in the binding bi-lateral agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, respectively. As a result of intense, discrete efforts in this regard, these fears have not materialized.
On September 15, when the actual texts of the two bilateral agreements (here and here) were first revealed at the White House signing ceremony, we learned that the highly problematic language that repeatedly appeared prior to the signing had been expunged, and the immediate danger had past. While the intentions of both the Trump team (or parts of it) and Netanyahu to change the status quo no doubt are intact, it is now clear that the normalization agreements have not been used as cover to effect the change.
Put bluntly, neither the UAE nor Bahrain can now be accused of colluding with Israel, or of acquiescing to any change in the arrangements that have been in place since 1967 at the Al Aqsa mosque or on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount.
There are several tentative observations and lessons regarding how this potentially explosive problem was defused, which disclose some of the dynamics accompanying normalization, and may reveal certain useful lessons going forward.
- The Context: The Trump Plan
Formally, the United States, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians all support maintaining the status quo on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount. While the meaning of the status quo lends itself to different interpretations, one of its key principles is crystal clear and undisputed. In his 2015 declaration, Netanyahu openly declared what all of his predecessors accepted, but none of whom dared say: “Israel re-affirms its commitment to upholding unchanged the status quo of the Temple Mount, in word and in practice… Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.”
Despite this unequivocal statement, we now know that behind the scenes, both the Trump administration and Netanyahu took serious steps towards changing this pillar of the status quo. While paying lip service to maintaining the status quo, the Trump Plan states explicitly: “People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”. Contrary to the status quo as practiced since 1967, by accepting the Trump Plan, both the United States and Israel went on record in supporting Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. The language is so unambiguous that there can be no doubt as to the intent.
Netanyahu’s silence on this radical change is very telling. Politically beleaguered, Netanyahu has of late been shouting his achievements, real and purported, from the rooftops. His political survival depends on his ability to rally public opinion in his support. From the move of the US embassy to normalization, he is casting himself as Israel’s Churchill.
Eliciting the right of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is, from the perspective of the Israeli right, an achievement of Biblical proportions. However, Netanyahu has not said a word about it, nor has anyone else in the Government of Israel drawn attention to it. They correctly believe that any unilateral change of the status quo demands that the move goes unnoticed until it is completed. Netanyahu’s silence speaks volumes as to what is happening “under the radar”. This alone should lay to rest any claim that this is an innocent, ambiguous move, with no sinister intent.
In the wake of vehement, albeit discreet protests from the Arab world, immediately after the release of the Trump Plan, the administration appeared to walk this provision back. In a press conference on January 29, 2020, Ambassador David Friedman stated:
“The status quo, in the manner that it is observed today, will continue absent an agreement to the contrary. So, there’s nothing in the – there’s nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that’s not subject to agreement of all the parties. So, don’t expect to see anything different in the near future, or maybe in the future at all.”
From the outset, this “clarification” appeared to observers to be grossly inadequate. A senior US official who is familiar with both the issues and the parties confessed, off the record: “Friedman’s statement will mean nothing as a response in a press conference; they need to make an official statement modifying the language in the text of the plan”.
The provisions of the Trump Plan are hewn in stone, while Friedman’s assurances have been drawn in the sand.
- The Normalization Process
- The Context: The Trump Plan
Since Trump’s 2017 inauguration, Jerusalem has figured prominently in his policies on Israel-Palestine, both in word and in deed. After a) the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, b) the move of the embassy, c) the announcement that Jerusalem had been “taken off the table” and d) the provisions of the Trump Plan providing for sole Israeli sovereignty over the “undivided” city, it was only natural that Jerusalem would conspicuously appear in the joint declarations and pronouncements that were made in the framework of the normalization process between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
- Jerusalem and the Abrahamic Tradition
These declarations and pronouncements are by no means mere episodic reminders of the importance of the city to the parties. The Abraham Covenant, as its title suggests, seeks to replace national conflict with religious coexistence. This is no longer a bitter and intractable national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world. With normalization, the conflict has been replaced with a harmonious meeting of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Such a framing of the conflict and the path to its resolution draw upon the core beliefs of Trump’s evangelical Christian base, and of Netanyahu’s rightwing religious base. Part reality, partly kitsch and myth, there is no location on earth that better embodies this meeting of the three Abrahamic civilizations than Jerusalem, and nowhere in Jerusalem is this more so than in the area surrounding Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount.
However, what is problematic is not the symbolic role that Jerusalem fulfills in the Abraham Covenant, but the attempt to manipulate Jerusalem in the service of consolidating an exclusive, purportedly beneficent Israeli rule over all of Jerusalem, accompanied by a radical and surreptitious attempt to change the status quo.
- Changing the Status Quo through Stealth
As we explained in detail in our August 28 issue of Insiders’ Jerusalem, the door to a change of the status quo that the Trump Plan left open was entered once again by means of the Joint Statements on normalization signed by the United States, Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, respectively. Identical wording appeared in both of the Joint Statements heralding the normalization agreements: “… all Muslims …may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque”, while “…Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for worshipers of all faiths”.
There is nothing accidental in the use of the term “Al Aqsa Mosque” instead of “Haram al Sharif”. Muslim interpretations notwithstanding, for both the United States and Israel, Al Aqsa is limited to the actual structure of the Mosque, while Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount is the entire esplanade. While intentionally camouflaged, the meaning of the text is unequivocal: the esplanade surrounding the structure of the mosque is one of Jerusalem’s “other holy sites”, and consequently Jewish prayer is to be allowed on the Mount. The fact that this wording was retained in the Bahraini statement weeks after the US had been hearing deep concern from key stakeholders in the Arab world is just one more indication that this was a conscious and intentional move, being pursued with resolve.
- Who’s in Back of this Change?
Based on a highly reliable source (Nadav Shragai, a journalist and expert on the Temple Mount close to the Netanyahu government) we know that the specific wording of the Trump Plan in regard to Jerusalem and the Status Quo was produced by a joint team of Americans and Israelis. It is highly likely that this same team (most probably made up of Friedman, Dermer and Dore Gold) crafted the wording in the two Joint Statements.
Kushner vs Friedman? The role that Jared Kushner has played in all of this remains unclear. While Kushner prioritizes the regional endorsement of Trump vision and is generally attentive to the concerns of the Gulf states, Friedman prioritizes an Israel based on the principles and values of the ideological right, including the Temple Mount movement. While it is conceivable that at the outset, Kushner may have been clueless about the hidden intent of the wording, once normalization was announced he could no longer plausibly deny being aware of this. All of suspicions could easily have been laid to rest were Kushner simply to clarify that the US’ commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif was intact. But he chose to remain silent.
As for the UAE, it is highly unlikely that the Emiratis knew any of this in advance nor fully understood the ramifications of the text that was inserted in the joint statement.
- Why Now?
While we have observed and repeatedly described the intense efforts of the Temple Mount activists to alter the status quo and the cooperation of Israeli government and authorities with these efforts, we did not anticipate that Netanyahu would formally greenlight and declare an opening of Haram al Sharif/ the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer in the immediate future. Since 1996, with the eruption of violence in the wake of the opening of the Western Wall tunnels, Netanyahu has proven himself to be highly risk averse regarding any move that could possibly spark an eruption of violence on the Mount.
Netanyahu knows very well that at this time, any overt attempt to make any changes on the ground would undermine the efforts by himself and the Trump administration to “lay the groundwork” for Jewish prayer which has been one of the major thrusts of their efforts in recent months. The last thing they need for this plan to change the status quo to succeed at the current stage is publicity.
So why devote the time, energy and potential risks of injecting a change in the status quo into the normalization agreements?
- Creating a “new normal”. Both Trump and Netanyahu have made a change in the terms of reference on Israel-Palestine the centerpiece of their respective foreign policies. “Peace for peace” has replaced “land for peace”, occupied Palestinian territories are no longer qualified as ‘occupied’ by the State Department, and an “undivided Jerusalem” rather than a “shared Jerusalem” has been at the core of these efforts. They are trying to establish the “new normal” of Jewish prayer on the Mount, paving the way for others in the Arab world and beyond to acquiesce as well. The change in terminology dovetails perfectly with a “new normal” created by the erosion of the status quo on the ground, where the Temple Mount movement is engaging more frequently and conspicuously in worship, and with the police increasingly turning a blind eye. Conspicuous displays of prayer and piety that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago have become commonplace, with tensions rising accordingly.
- A cavalier disregard of future dangers. The Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is notorious for being one of the most volatile sites in the world, with an eruption of violence on the Mount likely to send shockwaves throughout the region and beyond. There is consequently a view widely held by all stakeholders: one tinkers with the arrangements on the Mount at great risk, and cool heads and steady hands are always essential. The manner in which the US and Netanyahu are tinkering with the status quo flies in the face of these principles. A keen observer of the recent developments regarding the status quo on the Mount has noted that even if the Trump team is aware of the potential volatility of these moves, “…it is clear they don’t care. Look at what they did to the Serbs and Kosovars with respect to locating their embassies in Jerusalem. For this administration…if the situation blows up later, blame it on someone else, likely the Palestinians.”
- Creating “irreversible” facts. Ambassador Friedman has displayed both in word and in deed that he wholeheartedly subscribes to the ideology of Israel’s settler right – perhaps even more than Netanyahu himself. His actions in recent months have been those of one who views Trump’s tenure in office as a unique opportunity to create the Biblically-driven “settler Israel”. He is devoted to creating circumstances that will be difficult if not impossible to undo or repair by future administrations. The move of the Embassy, recognition of Israeli Jerusalem and normalization are here to stay, and will not likely be abandoned by future presidents, even if they will view these steps as detrimental.
A process of normalization in which Arab states sign off on Jewish prayer on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount fits perfectly into this pattern. Any Arab state acquiescing to such a move, even unwittingly, would become a powerful precedent, serving Netanyahu well in his attempts to convince other Arab states to follow suit.
- The Normalization Texts
As noted, on September 15, the United States, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain conducted a ceremony where the two respective bilateral normalization agreements were signed. There were three documents released: the two agreements (here and here) and a joint declaration signed by all four of the countries participating in the ceremony. However, contrary to the manner in which Jerusalem was highlighted in all of the previous documents and statements, the word “Jerusalem” appears in none of these, nor is their any reference, implied or explicit, to the holy sites, Al Aqsa, the Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif. Jerusalem completely disappeared from the texts.
Jerusalem is as conspicuous in its absence in these documents as its prominent presence was in all the previous declarations and documents. This is no mere cosmetic change, and is hardly an accident. A potential crisis, perhaps violent, that could have been caused by Arab states perceived as Al Aqsa to Israeli authority and its transformation into a shared holy site was elegantly averted by removing all reference to Jerusalem. And as intended, no one seemed to notice – except the Temple Mount Movement. As Nadav Shragai has noted:
“MKs from the Knesset Land of Israel Lobby are worried that the new deal between the US, Israel, and the UAE actually takes Jewish rights on the Mount backwards”.
- How was this Made to Go Away?
Little is publicly known about the precise mechanics of the “behind the scenes” engagement that led up to the revision of the texts. However, enough is indeed known to allow us to draw some significant, albeit tentative conclusions.
The revelation that the normalization was being used as a cover to change in the status quo received a great deal of attention in the Arab language social media. In addition, press outlets directly or indirectly associated with Qatar and Turkey began to highlight the issue. However, the subject did not receive much public attention elsewhere.
This apparent silence was deceptive. Behind the scenes, there was a flurry of diplomatic efforts that eventually succeeded in the removal of the problematic texts.
The relatively muted response in the Arab world is worthy of examination. As a rule, events relating to a real or perceived threat to the Muslim equities on Haram al Sharif and al Aqsa generate very heated, passionate responses, both by governments and in public opinion. Apart from Arab language social media, this was clearly not the case regarding the current attempt to change the status quo. To the best of our knowledge no government made any public statement in this regard. Even Jordan, ever vigilant in protecting the status quo and their historic role as custodian of Al Aqsa, was uncharacteristically silent, at least publicly.
The arcane manner in which the Al Aqsa language was inserted into the normalization documents, and the fact that there was no immediate physical change on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif certainly contributed to this relative silence. However, it appears that a number of other factors came into play, and are noteworthy.
- The international community appears to have found it very problematic to be critical of anything to do with normalization, even among those who express grave reservations in private.
- With the Trump administration leaving no doubt as to how central the normalization agreements are to its foreign policy, there was a palpable sense among international stakeholders that is was imprudent in the extreme to do anything that might detract from Trump’s normalization “festivities”.
- This public silence regarding this issue was deceptive. Behind the scenes, there was intense engagement by certain Arab states with the Trump administration. (To the best we have been able to ascertain, there was no similar engagement on this issue on the part of European states or the EU). The fact that these discussions did not place against the backdrop of an uproar in public opinion and close scrutiny by the press likely contributed to the positive outcome.
- Both the technical and substantive circumstances made the issue of the status quo language relatively amenable resolution. It was clear from the outset that the Emiratis were not aware of the manipulation of the text. They had been deceived, and they could compellingly argue that the matter needed to be redressed.
Substantively, those Arab countries who did weigh in had a very powerful argument: If the language is ‘innocent’ and the ambiguity unintentional (something which stretches credulity), there should be no problem making that language crystal clear. However, if, on the other hand, the language cannot be amended and no clarification made, it is conclusive proof of the sinister intent of the wording.
In circumstances like this, simply removing any reference to Jerusalem from the normalization agreements was the path of least resistance, which elegantly made the problem disappear.
- A number of stakeholders have suggested that the lack of public attention reflects a devaluation of the importance of Jerusalem/Al Quds in certain segments of the younger generation in the Arab world. Some have asserted that while it is commonly accepted that normalization reflects a “downgrade” in the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world, something similar is happening with Jerusalem/Al Aqsa, with the younger generation not only being less familiar with Jerusalem related issues, but caring less as well.
While this is a question that should be looked at very hard, we have seen little evidence that this is the case, as the widespread attention this matter received in Arab language social media indicates. While it is important to keep an open mind regarding potential changes in public perceptions, it would appear to be a grave mistake to assume that passion about and devotion to Al Quds is any lesser today than it was in the past.
- The Takeaways
There are a number of tentative lessons that can be derived from the manner in which this matter was resolved, (at least for now).
Normalization is the new normal. Regardless of what one may think of the process of normalization, it is here to stay, and all of the stakeholders are already acting accordingly. For the Trump administration, normalization is an essential component of their strategic grand design, and one that is not necessarily shared by others in the international community. However, even if a subsequent administration or other stakeholders will reject that grand design, normalization will likely remain a significant part of the calculus of Israel-Palestine political processes. Tentatively, it appears to already be having an impact, whereby certain international stakeholders seem to display less of a willingness to critically engage Israel and more of a tendency to be dismissive of Palestinian concerns.
The marginalization of Israel-Palestine issues has its limits. From the Israeli perspective, one of the major goals of normalization is to bypass and neutralize the impact of the conflict with the Palestinians; for the Gulf states, normalization reflects a decision not to allow the Palestinian issue to serve as an obstacle to open, normalized relations with Israel. Still, while the conflict with the Palestinians will not figure prominently in Israel’s bilateral relations with the Gulf States, there are moments in which the core issues relating to Palestine cannot be ignored.
While the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is the most prominent of the matters likely to have an impact between Israel and the Gulf States, it is not unique. If and when Israel pursues particularly incendiary settlement schemes, like E-1 and Givat Hamatos, or when violent confrontations resume in Gaza, those who have normalized relations with Israel will likely be challenged in ways that cannot be ignored.
There will likely be new patterns of engagement emerging in relation to defusing volatile issues. Among those monitoring Israel-Palestine relations, it was widely viewed that normalization would embolden Netanyahu in matters such as settlements, demolitions etc. That may yet prove to be the case, but the manner in which the issue of the status quo was resolved, without European or EU engagement, indicates that at least on occasion, the opposite may be true. Even in light of the decreasing Arab willingness to become embroiled in matters relating to Israel-Palestine, their discreet engagement could prove efficient in delivering a positive outcome.
The absence of a valued and recognized mediator was palpable. The status quo on the Temple Mt./Haram al Sharif requires constant monitoring and periodic intervention by third parties. Israel, the Jordanians and the Palestinians have different interpretations of just what the status quo is. When relations between Israel and Jordan/the waqf are good, these differences can generally be managed by the parties themselves. However, in recent years, the active engagement of a mediator – specifically the United States – has proved essential in resolving potentially incendiary disputes. Secretary of State Kerry would spend hours on the phone mediating between Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Jordan. In the current attempt to change the status quo, not only was the United States absent in its role as mediator, it had an active role in the scheme to change the status quo. Regrettably, the void left by the United States, which was now so conspicuous, has not yet been filled by an alternate mediator.
We have not seen the end of this. The efforts to change the status quo have not abated, and are expected to intensify. While Trump’s team and Netanyahu have proven to be persistent in trying to pave the way for Jewish prayer on the Mount, their ability to pursue it further depends very much on the result of the US elections. Should there be a change in administration, it is unlikely there will be another formal opportunity to move towards changing the status quo before the new president assumes office. Regardless of their other policies on Israel-Palestine, a Biden administration will not likely be sympathetic towards a potential change in the status quo. However, there are dangers that lie elsewhere.
As noted, the erosion of the status quo on the Mount has accelerated in recent years, particularly in regard to Jewish prayer. The Temple Mount movement has been emboldened. Their activists are constantly testing the Israeli police by praying on the Mount, with the police increasingly permissive in allowing them to do so.
The already emboldened Temple Mount movement now has received further encouragement, specifically relating Jewish prayer to the normalization process. One activist recently wrote that “one of the most perverse aspects of the Middle East conflict is the rejection of Jews’ right to pray on the Temple Mount. That must change if the Abraham Accords are to have any meaning”, and this sentiment is becoming an increasingly important part of the Temple Mount campaign. (See also, “All eyes might be on the Temple Mount after the UAE-Israel deal” and “Is it time to ‘normalize’ the Temple Mount?”).
The impact and influence of Israel’s Temple Mount movement has been significantly amplified as a result of their alliance with the evangelical Christian right. The normalization accords has become an event around which evangelical Christians push for Jewish prayer on the Mount. Holy site expert Prof. Doron Bar recently noted:
“We are now on the verge of critical elections in the U.S., and the Trump administration is constantly seeking to shore up the support of Evangelicals and the proportion of the U.S. Orthodox Jewish community that backs him.
The Evangelical community… would certainly be pleased if, parallel to the opening of Haram al-Sharif to Muslim pilgrims from the Gulf, there would be public recognition of the right to Jewish public prayer on the Temple Mount”.
In 1967, the call for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and its transformation into a shared Jewish/Muslim site was relegated to the eccentric fringes of Israel’s religious right. Today, it is an issue prioritized most by one of the most powerful political movements in the world, the Evangelical Christian right. The significance of this change should not be underestimated.
Finally, these developments on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif will no doubt be a part of the skirmishing among Arab and Muslim states throughout the region. Regional stakeholders have already been competing for power and influence on the Mount, at times accusing the Jordanians of being insufficiently vigilant in its protection of the Muslim holy sites. There are persistent rumors to the effect that as part of the incentives to normalize, they will be offered some sort of official role on the Mount, diluting the historic Jordanian custodianship.
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Jerusalem has become a rallying cry for Turkey’s President Erdogan. See Zvi Bar’el’s analysis in Haaretz: “‘Jerusalem Is Ours’: Behind Erdogan’s Remarkable Claim”.
An initiative reaffirming the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif can and should be high on the agenda of the international community. Ironically, as volatile as the issue of Jewish prayer and the status quo on the Mount is, it is also one of the few issues on the agenda between Israel and Palestinians which is potentially the most manageable. While Netanyahu has acted purposefully behind the scenes to radically change the status quo, he cannot under foreseeable circumstances do so publicly. While many of the elements of the status quo are given to interpretation, the two recently challenged provisions – that of Jewish prayer and Jordanian custodianship – are beyond dispute. As noted, Netanyahu can disavow himself of neither. It was Netanyahu who himself proclaimed that “… Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” Israel’s undertakings regarding Jordanian custodianship on the Mount are no mere custom. Rather, they are anchored in Article 9 of the Jordan-Israel Peace Agreement. Both of these undertakings are crystal clear, and Netanyahu can and should be held to them.
If, as appears increasingly likely, there will be a new administration in Washington as of January 2021, a reaffirmation of the status quo and Jordanian custodianship is one of the most achievable and consequential steps that can be taken, and at little or no political cost. Trump touted that he had “taken Jerusalem off the table”, and he followed up with a plan that purports to do just that. Convincingly “putting Jerusalem back on the table” is the sine qua non of the resumption of any US leadership role on Israel-Palestine relations. Many of the ideas as to how to do that will likely be controversial, and politically daunting.
Reaffirming the status quo and Jordan’s special role in it are neither, and has the potential of sending a clear and much needed stabilizing message: the international community, and specifically the United States, are committed to the safeguarding of Arab and Muslim equities in Jerusalem, and devoted to the integrity of Muslim holy sites in the city. Jerusalem was and remains the volcanic core of the conflict. It has not been taken off the table, and the resolution of its political status and the safeguarding of its holy sites remain important permanent status issues that need be negotiated and resolved.