Like most people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a creature of habits – and one of those habits relates to how he uses the issue of Jerusalem in elections. In the past, Netanyahu has repeatedly used last-minute Jerusalem related events in order to energize his base. For example, in 1996, he engaged in the “Peres will divide Jerusalem” campaign in the last couple of weeks before elections (and he attributes his victory in no small part to this campaign). Likewise, in 1999, a week before elections, he attempted to close the Orient House (PLO headquarters in Jerusalem). In short, exploiting Jerusalem for electoral gain can be viewed as part of his electoral modus operandi.
In this context, and under normal circumstances, the potential would be high for a Netanyahu-led inflammatory Jerusalem-related event – for example, a move to strengthen Israel’s control over or foothold within East Jerusalem, or in adjacent areas of the West Bank – in the weeks or days before election day (April 9).
But these are not normal circumstances. Today, both the current domestic political atmosphere in Israel and the current international political dynamics around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raise this risk of such a move by Netanyahu is many magnitudes higher.
Factors in Play, Domestic & Foreign
Targets of Opportunity (aka, What to Watch Out For)
Factors in Play, Domestic & Foreign
Domestically, four factors are pushing Netanyahu to make a move in and/or around Jerusalem. These are:
- The threat of an indictment. Netanyahu approaches these elections under the pall of a likely imminent criminal indictment; his goal as Israel goes to the polls will be to remain Prime Minister even under indictment. It is by now clear that, in the service of this goal, there is little if anything Netanyahu won’t do to galvanize and grow his political base — as evidenced by the attacks Netanyahu and his allies are launching against the justice system, the police and the IDF, and most recently, by Netanyahu’s decision to join forces with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), Israel’s furthest right-wing, openly racist, proudly extremist Kahanist political party.
- Political competition. In these elections, there is a crowded field on Israel’s ideological right, with stiff competition for votes among the party lists. In the context of this competition, each list is claiming to be more favorable to the demands of settlers (West Bank and East Jerusalem alike), the Temple Mount movement, etc. His alliance with the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) is itself a signal of the extraordinary lengths Netanyahu is prepared to go to win right-wing votes.
- Right-Wing inflation. The hardline “Greater Israel” movement perceives the current political period to be one of unprecedented opportunity. The Israeli political leadership – from center Left to far Right – today embraces and defends the settlers and (to varying degrees) the settlement agenda. Settler leaders and voters are today pocketing this support as an entitlement, and telling the various lists, in effect: show us what else you’ve got.
- Misdirection. Given the prospect of Palestinian succession becoming an acute issue, and the impasse regarding Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas, the potential for violence – even rogue violence – will likely increase as the elections approach. As Netanyahu desperately seeks to avoid a war in Gaza, his controversial steps towards Hamas are already being used against him by most of his political opponents. In this context, he will be looking for actions he can take to deflect criticism and shift focus to other issues (like Jerusalem).
Based on these factors, the potential for Netanyahu to decide to make a significant and highly provocative move on Jerusalem before the election is high. And internationally, the factors that militate against such a move by Netanyahu are not promising.
- The US is far less willing to elicit restraint and responsibility from Israel. The traditional braking mechanisms that the U.S. in the past put in place in order to deter Netanyahu from engaging in some of the more problematic moves have for all intents and purposes been removed. The U.S. not only no longer objects to settlement-related initiatives in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, but it is viewed by many Israelis, not necessarily inaccurately, as being actively on-board with pro-settlement moves, including efforts to normalize settlements and occupation.
- The EU is fractured (but can act in unity of purpose under extreme circumstances). At the same time, international pressure (never of great concern to Israeli right-wing voters and politicians) is now widely viewed, not without justification, as irrelevant to Israeli decisions vis-a-vis settlement-related matters. Divisions within the EU, carefully fueled by Netanyahu, render coherent, articulate European engagement on Israel-Palestine issues more difficult than in the past (although not impossible as demonstrated by the case of Khan Al Ahmar).
- Israel-Sunni states rapprochement. Netanyahu’s (and the Trump Administration’s) strategy of using common fear/antagonism toward Iran as a lever to build stronger ties between Israel and Sunni states – totally disconnected from Israeli policies and actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians – has proven relatively successful. In the interests of building cooperation against Iran (as well as expanded commercial ties and military/security ties) and in the context of a growing fatigue towards the Palestinian issue, Sunni states are today more willing than at any time since 1948 to sacrifice Palestinian interests in order to give Israel a “pass” on many of its problematic policies [notably, so far the one limit on this has been Jerusalem, as was seen with actions and statements by Saudi Arabia related to the Trump Administration’s embassy move]
- There are few responsible adults left (anywhere), with little energy to engage. With the liberal world order under assault globally, and with myriad challenges on both the national and international scale, today there are precious few who are willing to critically engage Israel on settlement-related issues, over the need to preserve the status quo on the Temple Mount, or on Israel-Palestine matters in general. Even for those still willing to engage, Israel-Palestine is not the highest priority, and there is very limited political capital that can be put in play.
Targets of Opportunity (aka, What to Watch Out For)
Back in January 2017, after the inauguration of the Trump Administration – anticipated by Israelis to be the most pro-settler US administration in history – we outlined the specific locations/projects of greatest concern regarding pending and likely plans for settlement activity in and immediately around East Jerusalem.
Since that time, some of these concerns have been fully realized: e.g., Trump changed U.S. policy to officially recognize Jerusalem (borders unspecified) as Israel’s capital; he announced he would and then carried out the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and is closing down the US consulate there. The implementation of others is ongoing: e.g., aggressive expansion of Jewish enclaves in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods (primarily in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrar); accelerating the pace of the construction of E-2 (aka Givat Eitam); and the opening of the Apartheid road.
On the eve of Israel’s national elections and the possible launching of Trump’s so-called “peace plan,” concerns raised in January 2017 regarding the most sensitive and ambitious settlement and settlement-related projects are more relevant than ever. Below we highlight those of the most urgent concern, focusing our analysis on what we believe are both the most likely and the most problematic actions that may be taken by Netanyahu between now and election day. Our intention here is not to ignore or downplay the importance of more “routine” bad actions that have been taken or could be taken in the current context (some of which are, indeed, quite bad). That said, the common denominator to the issues on which we are focusing below is this: each is something of a banner under which the ideological right has decided to march. As a result, there is no doubt that these issues will figure prominently in election rhetoric, towards the goal of forcing an already susceptible Netanyahu’s hand.
- Khan al Ahmar
As we covered in detail in September 2018, Israel’s High Court of Justice gave the Israeli government a green light to go ahead with the forced displacement (“evacuation”) of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, rejecting the several petitions of the residents. For a detailed analysis of the implications of such a displacement, read more, here.
Since that final ruling by the High Court, the government has had the authority to go take action against Khan al-Ahmar at any time. However, until now the government has refrained from doing so, thanks largely to impressive, coordinated European engagement and to the clear warning sent by the prosecutor of the International Court of Justice, characterizing the eviction, it it were to take place, as a war crime.
Yet, Netanyahu has reportedly said that the eviction of Khan Al Ahmar would “certainly help” him and his party if it was implemented before the election. This suggests that given the domestic and international trends described above, Netanyahu may decide that on balance, he stands to win more by pandering to his political base than he stands to lose by courting a confrontation with leading European States or even by committing a war crime.
As we wrote last September: “Europe is now facing a test and a moment of truth: if Netanyahu is permitted to carry out the eviction of Khan al-Ahmar without facing serious consequences, the credibility of the EU and European member states who led this campaign will be seriously harmed, both now and in the context of any future engagements. Hence, the imperative that there will be a robust and consequential response to the expected eviction of Khan Al Ahmar is linked not just to the fate of the village but will have direct implications on the government of Israel’s next steps, on the aggressiveness of its policy, and on the standing of Europe.”
We have reported on E-1 many times in the past. As a review: E-1 is a settlement planned for an area on East Jerusalem’s northeastern flank (beyond the city’s municipal borders), designed to cement a contiguous block of settlements stretching from Maale Adumim to the city’s east, through Neve Yaacov and Pisgat Zeev to the north, and extending to Givat Zeev, to the northwest (download map here).
We have described in several reports the dire threat the implementation of E-1 would cause to the two-state solution, primarily by dismembering a potential future Palestinian state into two non-contiguous cantons and sealing off East Jerusalem from its environs in the West Bank. A more detailed analysis can be found here.
The construction of E-1 has been prevented until now, thanks entirely to massive international pressure. The last attempt of Netanyahu to defy this international opposition was in 2012, when he announced – in retaliation for the extension of non-member status to the Palestinians at the UN – that he would move ahead with E-1 and instructed the High Planning Committee of the West Bank to deposit the plans for public review. Such publication would have started a process for final approval (the entire process taking 9 months to a year), after which tenders could have been published, permits issued, and construction commenced. Under pressure, Netanyahu ultimately backed off and did not publish the plan.
As was the case in 2012, the implementation of E-1 today still depends solely on Netanyahu giving the green light for the publication of the plans. Once he does, the clock will start ticking toward construction; assuming Netanyahu and his government obey normal planning rules, this clock will run for up to a year — between the resumption of planning and the publication of tenders for construction. Once the green light is given, it will be very difficult (but not impossible) to prevent the publication of tenders.
- Givat Hamatos
We have reported on Givat Hamatos many times in the past. As a review: this is the plan for a new settlement to be located between the existing East Jerusalem settlement/neighborhood of Gilo and the West Bank city of Bethlehem (see map, above). The first stage of Givat Hamatos plan would allow for the construction of 4500 units (the overwhelming majority of which would be for Israeli Jews, with a smattering of property that would be allotted for Palestinian landowners).
We have described previously the potentially devastating impacts of the construction of Givat Hamatos on the two-state solution. Specifically, it would result in the complete encirclement of the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa by Israeli development. As a result, it will become impossible to draw a border between Israel and Palestine based on the principle that Arab neighborhoods of the city will fall under Palestinian sovereignty, and Jewish neighborhoods under Israel sovereignty. In such circumstances, the implementation of the two state solution in Jerusalem would be impossible. A full background and map of the area can be found here.
As we explained in our January 2017 analysis, plans for construction in Givat Hamatos have been fully approved, but tenders have not yet been published: tenders for the construction of up to 1500 of the 4500 units could be published literally at any time, based on the whim of Netanyahu. As elections approach, the chances that Netanyahu will give the order to publish these tenders rises exponentially — and the significance of him doing so cannot be overstated. In planning terms, the publication of tenders is a Rubicon that, once crossed, is a point of no return, since at that point, third-party rights (purchasers) become involved. In short, the publication of tenders, effectively, would make the construction of Givat Hamatos a virtual certainty.
While E-1 is larger in scope and has greater notoriety than Givat Hamatos, the danger posed by the latter is in some respects greater. Assuming Netanyahu and his government follow normal planning rules on E-1, any decision he takes on E-1 will in effect by a trip-wire that will give the world as long as a year in which to engage to try to prevent actual construction. With respect to Givat Hamatos, a move by Netanyahu won’t be a trip-wire, but rather the beginning of a series of detonations that cannot be stopped.
- Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
The ongoing crisis on and in regards to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif has been festering for some time and is not directly related to the elections. However, Israeli policies will no doubt be influenced by the domestic political environment. Already, the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is beginning to be a part of the campaign propaganda.
Unlike the previous issues, this is not merely a potential crisis. The crisis is already here. The events are so worrying we will examine the recent events and implications at length.
Jordan’s decision to change the composition of the Waqf Council
In mid-February 2019, Jordan decided to change the composition of the Waqf Council (the body responsible for daily running of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif esplanade). Jordan added 7 new members, expanding the Council from 11 to 18 members. The decision not only enlarged the Council but, importantly, added PA and PLO representatives and local religious leaders who were involved in the 2017 protests against Israeli efforts to position metal detectors at the gates of the esplanade (for details on the identities/backgrounds of the new members, see reporting by Haaretz and Al-Monitor).
The inclusion of PA/PLO representatives on the Council is a significant shift for Jordan, one that directly challenges Israel’s longstanding policy opposing any Palestinian political representation in Jerusalem, let alone in the administration of its holy sites. Likewise, as noted by Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group, the inclusion of local leaders – ones who enjoy credibility for their connection to protests against Israeli efforts to change the status quo on the Temple Mt/Haram al Sharif – is a shift in Jordan’s approach that appears aimed at giving the Waqf greater legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinian society, thereby enabling it to reconnect to the Palestinian “street” and potentially to gain more influence over Palestinian community leaders; putting PA representatives under the Waqf umbrella likewise serves the same objectives. Together, these shifts appear also geared to helping the Waqf counterbalance the growing cooperation between the police and the Temple Mount movement, and the ongoing assaults on and erosions of the status quo at the site.
Re-opening Bab al Rahme
On February 14, the new Council handed down its first decision: to defy Israeli authorities and enter the Bab al Rahme and pray there. This area on the esplanade, located near the Mercy Gate/Golden Gate, has been sealed by Israeli authorities since 2003, based on the claim that the organization managing the site, the Islamic Heritage organization, was associated with Hamas. In response, the Israeli police intervened and closed all the gates of the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. That move, which was immediately condemned by Jordan, triggered a series of clashes that resulted in the Israeli police arresting 5 Palestinians. Yet, the following Friday (February 22), Palestinians broke the lock placed at Bab al Rahme, entered the site, and held prayers inside. The Israeli police did not prevent the prayers, but retaliated by arresting, on February 24, the head of the Waqf Council, Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, and his deputy, Sheikh Najeh Bkeirat.
The Waqf is now asking Israel to officially allow the reopening of the site, based on the assertion that the Islamic Heritage was long ago disbanded. With Israeli police opposing opening of the site, the Waqf – in an unprecedented move – directly asked Israel’s Attorney General to get involved on its behalf. The Waqf is reportedly asking Israeli authorities to authorize three things: access of Muslim visitors to the Bab al Rahme area, maintenance works on the site, and the use of Bab al Rahme as a place of worship. The third ask is viewed by Israeli authorities as the most problematic and a breach of the status quo.This issue is already been used as a casus belli by far right-wing Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich, who called upon Netanyahu to close the entire esplanade in retaliation for Palestinians entering the site. Minister Uri Ariel – a leader in efforts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount to permit greater Jewish access/control/freedom to worship – was also quoted saying “What’s happening at the Gate of Mercy [Golden Gate] is a major breach of the status quo, and our demand is that this matter be returned to its previous status immediately. There is no reason for Netanyahu to agree to this change and certainly not when Muslims are allowed in and Jews are not.”
As a prime minister, Netanyahu has (until now) acted rather cautiously under similar circumstances, and at present he is no doubt aware that tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif could easily spin out of control and put him in a fragile situation on the eve of elections. If he chooses to resist calls from the right for provocative actions (something that is by no means certain in the heat of elections campaigning), the good news is that this will decrease the chances for escalation on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif; the bad news is that this will increase the risk that Netanyahu will seek to deflect criticism from his right wing challengers – just as he may try to do with respect to criticism regarding his Gaza policy – by taking provocative action on other Jerusalem-related fronts (with the most likely possibilities for such actions discussed in detail above).
Responding to repeated threats to the Status Quo
Jordan’s shift of approach regarding the Waqf appears to be part of its effort to resist Israeli attempts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. As we reported last April, Israeli authorities have largely supported efforts by the Israeli extremists (including members of the Knesset) to de facto change the status quo. This has included authorizing opening the site up for greater Jewish access, facilitating Jewish visits, and granting Jewish visitors a degree of religious practice at the site. For a more detailed analysis of the key elements qualifying the status quo, see here.
More recently, violations of the status quo have included the Israeli Police showing growing tolerance towards “silent” prayer by Jewish visitors and repeatedly arresting of Waqf guards (the latter being a grave deterioration of relations between Israel and the Waqf). Such an incident was reported by Ofer Zalzberg on Twitter on January 14: Waqf guards refused to allow an Israeli policeman to enter the Dome of the Rock wearing his yarmulke (the skullcap worn by religious Jews), and the policeman refused to remove it. In retaliation, the Israeli police closed the Dome of the Rock to Muslim visitors and clashes followed. After the end of the stand-off, the Israeli police arrested Waqf 4 guards and one Fatah activist.
“Routine” Bad Things
So far, we have prioritized and focused upon the most likely and dangerous issues related to the elections. At the same time, there is not, nor will there be, a suspension of “routine” bad things happening that are unrelated to the elections. Three specific issues bear mentioning.
- The Old City Cable Car
One of the main and most significant development to be watched relates to the cable car. As we explained in our report at the end of January, the pace of the planning process related to the cable car has seriously accelerated: The plans for the project were deposited for public review on January 28, and the plan is expected to move to final approval at the end of March.
It cannot be stressed enough: The 60 day-period for public review that started on January 28 is the last window of opportunity for the international community to engage in order to attempt to prevent the plan from been implemented.
As we have warned in previous reports, this project is beyond a crass Disney-fying violation of the unique character of the Old City and its surroundings. As the Dung Gate terminal is located approximately 140 meters from the Al Aqsa Mosque, it violates the unique character of Jerusalem as a world heritage site and violates the sanctity and common sense of respect for a site that it revered by Jews and Muslims alike. For details, see our previous reports, here and here.
- Evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City, & Silwan
The settlers’ efforts to change the demographic border in Jerusalem in both Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, as well as inside the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, by extending, house after house, their control over these neighborhoods, are not directly linked to the elections process. Rather, this is an ongoing and systematic attempt to change the character and fabric of life in these areas.
These efforts, including the imminent eviction of the Sabbagh family in Sheikh Jarrah, are likely to continue at full speed in the coming months, with the full backing of the government.
- Inflammatory Rhetoric by the Political Leadership
Words matter. Statements such as Netanyahu declaring that there will be no further dismantling of settlements and that “the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people,” elicited little or no international response. This is no small matter.
At the core of Netanyahu’s campaign is his attempt to demonstrate to the Israeli public that, over time, the world will acquiesce and the Palestinians will submit to permanent Israeli control over all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Failure by the international community to challenge such statements – statements that are wholly incompatible with Israel’s purported support of a negotiated settlement, and with the international community’s commitment to a two state outcome and to international law – sends a message to Israelis that Netanyahu is right. Indeed, a number of international leaders appear for all practical purposes to have joined the “Committee to Re-Elect Netanyahu.”
It is a truism of democracy and international affairs that foreign governments should refrain from meddling in other nations’ elections — but a course correction here is not a matter of taking sides or picking gratuitous fights with Netanyahu. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing that by failing to speak out in the face of highly problematic pronouncements by Netanyahu and others in positions of authority, the international community is discrediting its own policies, undermining the credibility of its own leadership, and validating Netanyahu’s “the world will give in to me” narrative.