Attempted Assassination Raises the Stakes at the Temple Mount

In recent months and years, we have been reporting on escalating tensions and provocations related to the Temple Mount.  In recent weeks and months, we have been anticipating that, absent strong leadership to rein in provocateurs, that there would eventually be a non-routine violent incident related to the Temple Mount – one with potentially serious ramifications for security and stability in Jerusalem and beyond.  Last week, such an incident occurred, with an assassination attempt on Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a leading figure in the Temple Mount movement.  Notably, the attack occurred in West Jerusalem, at the Begin Heritage Center, carried out by a Palestinian gunman on a motorbike who reportedly confirmed Glick’s identity before opening fire.  Glick and others (including right-wing members of Knesset) were gathered at the Center for an event entitled, “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount.”  Following the attack, Israeli security was out in force overnight in East Jerusalem, and the following morning killed a Palestinian man – Muataz Hijazi – alleged to have been responsible for the attack.

In the wake of the Glick shooting, Defense Minister Yaalon and others immediately blamed PA incitement for the attack (despite Islamic Jihad’s claim of responsibility), and calls were heard for a harsh response, revenge, and demands that the Temple Mount be opened up for Jewish prayer.  In this context, retaliation by right-wing vigilantes was and remains a serious concern (the night following the shooting, graffiti reading “Death to Arabs” was painted on an Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem).

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Netanyahu closed the Temple Mount to worshipers and visitors of all faiths – the first time Israel has done such a thing in 14 years.  The site was reopened the following day for Friday Muslim prayers, though with limitations on entry (only men over the age of 50 and women allowed).   Closing the site the day after the shooting was arguably a wise move from a security perspective, given the extremely volatile mood in the area – a mood in which both Israeli extremists and Palestinian hoodlums could have been expected to actively seeking conflict – the decision to do so was both extraordinary and controversial.  Jewish extremists bitterly condemned the action (MK Moshe Feiglin this morning tried to go onto the Temple Mount but was turned back, giving him another opportunity to vent).  For his part, Palestinian President Abbas declared the closure of the site tantamount to an act of war.

In the days since, Netanyahu has faced unrelenting pressure over this issue – from the Right, which is pressuring Netanyahu to impose an appropriate “Zionist response” to the attack,  seeking to capitalize on the shooting to achieve historic changes in the Temple Mount status quo; and from the Palestinians, the Jordanians (who have threatened that changing the Temple Mount status quo could destroy the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, a concern that some senior Israeli officials have reportedly dismissed), and the international community, all of which are warning Netanyahu against doing such a thing.

For now, Netanyahu appears to be seeking to placate everyone. Rhetorically, and in maintaining the technical elements of the status quo, he is clearly attempting to address Muslim, Arab, and international concerns.  In a statement delivered November 2, he said, “The Temple Mount is the most sensitive kilometer on earth. Alongside a strong insistence on our rights, we are determined to maintain the status quo. It is easy to start a religious fire, but much more difficult to extinguish it.”  On the other hand, he is clearly unwilling to confront extreme members of his Cabinet, party, and the Temple Mount movement – as evidenced by Israeli security forces permitting (and in fact, with their support enabling) far right-wing Likud MK Moshe Feiglin to visit the site the same day Netanyahu delivered his statement.

For his part, President Abbas praised Netanyahu’s statement regarding the Temple Mount status quo – a welcome move that in effect walks back his earlier “act of war” comment.  Shortly thereafter, however, Abbas provoked Netanyahu’s ire – and outrage in the Israeli media – over having sent a condolence letter to the family of Muataz Hijazi characterizing the shooting of Hijazi as an “assassination” and stating that Hijazi “will go to heaven as a martyr defending the rights of our people and its holy places…” 

Looking ahead, it seems likely that right-wing pressure will influence Netanyahu’s next steps – and even absent such pressure, Netanyahu has a long history of capitalizing on crisis moments like these to carry out retaliatory responses. Given the volatility of the new Mount and the level of international engagement, Netanyahu will likely look elsewhere to satisfy his punitive urges.  In the context of Netanyahu’s ongoing “chickenshit“-fueled tiff with the Obama Administration, he may be even more tempted to exploit current events to score political points.  Further cracking down on East Jerusalem protesters, provocative moves on the Temple Mount (like limitations on entry for Muslim worshipers, if not additional closures), and new settlement announcements should be anticipated.

Netanyahu deserves credit for embracing, thus far, responsible rhetoric in opposing a change in the Temple Mount status quo, and Abbas deserves credit for giving Netanyahu credit for doing so.  However, there is no room here for complacency.  All stakeholders need to recognize the volatility of the situation in Jerusalem and exhibit responsibility and restraint.  In these already trying circumstances, sober, responsible leadership can still prevent the current crisis from spiraling out of control; rash, punitive actions will virtually guarantee the opposite.