The Latest Temple Mt/Haram al-Sharif Crisis – Provisional Post-Mortem

We are currently emerging from yet another acute crisis relating to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Hopefully, the worst is behind us, but that is far from certain. The events of the past three weeks have taken place in a context of the ascendancy in Jerusalem of radical religious movements of all the three monotheistic faiths. The most volatile focus of this radicalization focuses on the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, and is fueled prominently by the Jewish Temple Mount movement and various iterations of radical Islam, all of which make claims to Jerusalem that are exclusionary and absolutist. In this context, there have been recurrent tensions between Jews and Muslims, which often have led to, or emerged from, reciprocal accusations over violation of the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (as discussed in detail in the last edition of Insiders’ Jerusalem).

That said, there are important differences between the latest crisis and previous ones, from which important lessons should be drawn.

Lesson One: Not the Same Netanyahu

In recent years, we have reported on a recurring cycle of escalation and de-escalation in relation to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif.

  • Increasing numbers of Jewish visitors almost invariably linked to the Temple Mount movement, and their increasing propensity towards provocations, would lead to the brink of an explosion.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu would eventually intervene, often at the behest of Jordan’s King Abdullah, to pull the situation back from the brink by imposing measures that would defuse the situation.
  • Immediately thereafter, these measures would begin to slowly unravel and a new round of escalation would commence.

While this cycle was clearly problematic, Netanyahu received – and deserved – credit for his cool head and steady hand at critical moments.

However, the latest crisis on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif signals a significant deviation from this well-established pattern. It would be an error to view Netanyahu decisions in this crisis (most notably, to close the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to Muslims for an extended period of time and to install metal detectors at the Lion’s Gate) as mere miscalculation. Rather, these decisions indicate a shift in Netanyahu’s approach to governance in general and in relation to the Mount in particular- becoming more defiant and unrestrained than ever before.

To be clear: the July 14 attack did require an operational response, given the gravity of the attack (which left two Israeli security personnel dead), and given the unprecedented use of firearms inside the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound. Moreover, neither closing the site to search for weapons nor the idea of requiring those entering the site to go through metal detectors are, on their face, irrational. The problem lies in the profoundly flawed decision-making process that led to these ideas being adopted and implemented: there were no deliberations; the Shin Bet and the army were not properly consulted  (it is worth noting that  in 2014, a proposal to install metal detectors was rejected by the authorities as too problematic); and the decision was made by Netanyahu hastily, as he was boarding a plane. Netanyahu, who already has a catastrophic Temple Mount event in his personnel file dating back to 1996, should have known better.

The shift in Netanyahu’s approach was not only evident in the original decisions, but in his refusal to reconsider the metal detectors policy after it became evident that the move was ill-considered. Both the Shin Bet and the IDF recommended removing the metal detectors, giving Netanyahu an opportunity to defuse the situation without loss of face; he chose not to avail himself of that opportunity. Indeed, Netanyahu remained adamant even after the violence of July 21, changing course only after the Amman incident left him no other option. Since then, even after the metal detectors were removed, Netanyahu appears to remain unapologetic and no less assertive, as evidenced by the hero’s reception he extended to the security guard returning from Amman and the unprecedented numbers of Jewish visitors allowed on the Mount on Tisha b’Av.

There is every indication that Netanyahu’s handling of this matter is no isolated mis-step, but rather a significant change in his approach to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Lesson 2: Crisis as Catalyst for New Popular Palestinian Protest Movement

Last month’s closure of the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and Israel’s effort to install metal detectors at the site’s entrance sparked mass Palestinian protests that rapidly crystallized into a coherent, effective, and almost exclusively non-violent Palestinian protest movement. This was a genuinely spontaneous, popular movement, led neither by religious leaders nor orchestrated by organized political forces. It was comprised largely of young people, both men and women, who by the force of their popular will and by engaging in determined non-violent protest (most notably boycotting any return to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif until the status quo ante was restored, and in the meantime undertaking actions like mass prayers on the streets adjacent to the site) protested Israeli measures and, in the end, compelled Israel to back down.

The emergence of this popular protest movement highlights some realities in East Jerusalem today:

  • In the wake of the shooting attack and the crisis that followed, there was no clear and identified leader to which East Jerusalem residents could look for direction. While certain families and sheikhs have had some influence, and indeed influenced the course of events in this crisis, no individual or organization played a decisive role. (It will be very worthwhile to examine in greater depth the role that various individuals and groups played at the critical moments in this crisis). This opened the door – and, indeed, created the necessity – for popular action.
  • The Palestinian leadership vacuum in East Jerusalem meant, too, that Israeli security authorities had no Palestinian address to which to turn, either immediately after the attack (when more prudent action might have averted a crisis altogether), or as the situation grew more complicated. Notably, this leadership vacuum is a direct result of Israeli policies that for nearly two decades (since the closure of Orient House) have clamped down on any and all Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem.
  • Popular action – taken largely with little or no outside leadership or direction – was also at the core of the crises in Jerusalem in 2014 and 2015. However, what happened in July 2017 took this to a new level, in the form of disciplined, coherent mass protests the likes of which Israel has not seen before. This new protest movement effectively side-lined not only the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah (viewed by the East Jerusalem street with contempt), but also Jordan’s King Abdullah (viewed by the East Jerusalem street as not representing them or their grievances). Hence, Israeli-Jordanian coordination – which played a central role in resolving crises in 2014 and 2015 – was largely irrelevant in resolving the conflict.
  • Accordingly, coordination between King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was virtually meaningless — right up until the incident in Amman involving an Israeli embassy security guard. Indeed, while the Saudis, Jordanians, and Americanscame in to take credit for Israel’s decision to restore the status quo ante with respect to security at the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the reality is that the crisis only ended because the circumstances created by the Amman incident left Netanyahu and King Abdullah with no choice but to accede to Palestinian public opinion. In short, it was basically Palestinian public opinion that dictated the outcome of this crisis, leaving little discretion to King Abdullah and Netanyahu (bearing in mind there may be understandings dictated by King Abdullah that have not been made public).
  • After the fact, a number of international players claimed credit for playing a role in defusing the crisis. We see no indication that any outside engagement or mediation was of great consequence this time. Despite claimsby the United States that it played a significant role, the Trump Administration was largely absent during this latest crisis. That said, given that the course of events was determined by a popular movement, it would have been difficult in any case for American leadership, or any other third party player, to play a significant role.

Overall, this July 2017 crisis has birthed a new dynamic in East Jerusalem, coalescing a new popular, non-violent protest movement that, in its first showing, has proven more effective at challenging Israeli policies in East Jerusalem than Palestinian leaders have at any point since the death of Faisal Husseini. It is a new ballgame – something that likely comes as a surprise to Israel, given that Israel has been so successful in crushing Palestinian political activities and leadership in East Jerusalem for the last 17 years.

It is far from clear who were the most consequential players in this new “movement” or what was the dynamic driving them. It is also not clear that whether this will be a sustainable and ongoing development. But one thing is clear: the period in which crises on and in relation to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif can be resolved by a phone call between King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu, with a prod from the U.S. Secretary of State, appears to be over.
Lesson 3: Tensions Could Re-Emerge Sooner Rather Than Later

Traditionally, tensions in Jerusalem die down after Tisha b’Av (this year, sundown July 31- sundown August 1) and escalate towards Rosh Hashanah (this year, sundown September 20 – sundown on September 22). That normal trendline would be worrying enough; this year, there are signs that Jerusalem may not enjoy even this brief respite in tensions between the two holy days, and that the current crisis is not over. The Israeli sense that Netanyahu capitulated to the Palestinians, the Israeli Police’s sense of humiliation over this capitulation, and a domestic political backdrop that pushes Netanyahu into his most defiant mode (in the form of likely imminent indictment), together represent a dangerous combination.

The primary source of concern is the fact that the outcome of this latest crisis was, without any doubt, a victory for East Jerusalem Palestinians and a defeat for Netanyahu and forces on Israel’s right who were eager to exploit the attack to change the Temple Mount status quo. The fact that in the midst of a crisis with Jordan Netanyahu allowed for unprecedented numbers of provocative Jewish visitors to visit the Temple Mount — the category of visitors who do not hide their intention to take ownership over the site and to change the status quo in regard to the ban on Jewish prayer — is a very bad sign, showing (among other things) that Netanyahu has either not learned the lessons of past crises, or that he is in so defiant a state of mind that he is actively embracing recklessly provocative policies.

A corollary concern is the general attitude of Israeli Police, who were forced to give in on the issue of the metal detectors by the Shin Bet and IDF when things unraveled. For them, Netanyahu’s capitulation is seen as humiliation – a view that has potentially profound ramifications on the ground.

Over the past decade, the Israeli police has increasingly adopted an adversarial role with respect to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, embodying an attitude best described as seeking to “break their will” and achieve submission. Simultaneously, as reported in the last edition of Insiders’ Jerusalem, Israeli Police have come to increasingly identify with Jews visiting the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, to the point that, three weeks ago, Jerusalem chief police Yoram Halevi made the bizarre public appeal for Jews to come visit the Temple Mount. In contrast, ten years ago, the police commander was warning that anybody calling for changing the status quo would be prevented from setting foot on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In the context of this major shift in approach by the police, it comes as no surprise that putting metal detectors manned by Israeli police at the gate of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif was perceived by Palestinian worshippers as much more than simply a technical move.

Given that both Netanyahu and the police feel they’ve been humiliated and unjustifiably forced to back down, there is a strong possibility that their desire for payback and to have the final word will lead to further provocative actions against Palestinians in East Jerusalem. While the Jerusalem Police have a wealth of experience dealing with violent clashes, they are likely to be untutored in the challenges posed  by non-violent protests. And on the Palestinian side there are no doubt elements in East Jerusalem frustrated by the non-violence and itching for a fight.
Lesson Four: The Palestinians Must Be Engaged (and NOT Just the PA)

Crisis around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif will continue, with varying intensity, until there is (a) recognition by all relevant parties that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, and Muslims on Haram al-Sharif, have legitimate grievances, and (b) willingness to engage them in eye-level discussions about how to address these grievances. The day when a crisis could be resolved in one phone call between King Abdullah and Netanyahu is over.

Given this reality, there are a few key facts that cannot be underscored strongly enough:

  • At no point did any Israeli officials indicate that the Palestinians may have legitimate grievances in Jerusalem.
  • There was virtually no official Israel engagement or outreach to East Jerusalem Palestinians during or after this crisis, nor has there been engagement or outreach for the last three years, during much of which Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been in open revolt.
  • King Abdullah has largely ignored both East Jerusalemites and President Mahmoud Abbas in dealing with the Temple Mount-Al Haram Al-Sharif, and overall the Jordanians have been as dismissive and even hostile to the PA as Israel has been.

It is too soon to tell whether the visit of King Abdullah to Ramallah will indeed be a pivot in the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship towards enhanced coordination on Jerusalem issues, as both sides asserted it will be. The show of friendship displayed during the visit could equally have been about sending a message to Israel, given the serious deterioration of Jordan-Israel relations in the wake of the incident at the Israeli embassy in Amman (and Netanyahu’s decision to welcome home the Israeli who killed two Jordanians as a hero, absent any investigation into what happened).

Regardless, in order to move forward in resolving the ongoing conflict and the crisis focused on the Temple Mt/Haram al-Sharif, it is essential to recognize that Palestinian lives matter — both in Jerusalem and the West Bank. They need to be engaged. The emergence of a genuinely popular, vibrant coherent and non-violent Palestinian civil society is a breath of fresh air and a positive potential game changer, and its significance demands close scrutiny: how did it happen, who were the “leaders” at various stages, what was the dynamic, can this be sustained or replicated etc. There are no answer yet to these questions.

At the same time, new capacity on the Palestinian side cannot replace Israel’s good relations with Jordan. Just as stability on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif cannot be assured while cutting out the Palestinians, it likewise cannot be secured while cutting out the Jordanians, who by tradition and by the terms of their peace treaty with Israel play a special role as the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Stability on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif requires triangulation among Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians.

While real coordination at this point seems highly unlikely, it is not too soon to think about new modes of engagement once an equilibrium is reached.