July 31, 2017 - The Temple Mount “strategic event” and Israeli strategic complacency

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the aftermath of the Temple Mount and Jordanian crises, the resulting tension, and Netanyahu's territorial exchange proposal.

 

Q. The Temple Mount is quiet, but Israel’s relations with Jordan have deteriorated radically over Israel’s treatment of a tangentially related event. What are the ramifications for Israeli-Jordanian relations and what are the broader lessons for Israel?

A. The focus of what began as a Temple Mount crisis has now shifted to Israel-Jordan relations due to broad anger among the Jordanian public over the way Israel has dealt with the shooting incident that took place two weeks ago at the Israel embassy compound in Amman. King Abdullah has responded harshly, not the least because he took personal offense at the crass and jingoistic way PM Netanyahu received the Israeli security guard accused by Jordan of murder but allowed to return home.

In Jordanian eyes, 28-year old Ziv Moyal (the Jordanian press, undoubtedly with official blessings, has revealed his identity) murdered two Jordanian civilians in the course of an argument over money. In Israeli eyes, he responded to a stabbing attack by one of the two that was apparently motivated by the Temple Mount issue, and shot and killed his aggressor. According to Israel the second Jordanian--the owner of the building where Moyal lived and a rare Jordanian who openly befriends Israelis in Jordan--was inadvertently killed, apparently by a ricochet.

 

Q. Can you go a little deeper into the substance of this controversy?

A. Here two remarks are in order. One concerns Netanyahu’s rhetoric over the past two weeks of crisis. His hero’s welcome for Moyal was motivated by his perceived need to appear more hawkish than the most hawkish critics in his coalition in order to deflect criticism over his handling of the Temple Mount fiasco and particularly his agreement to remove the metal detectors. Moreover, with indictments for corruption looming, the prime minister needs to rally his right-wing base. Netanyahu, not unusually at times of crisis, behaved like a scared politician rather than a leader with strategic vision. Abdullah was brutally accurate when he complained that Netanyahu was exploiting the deaths at the Israel Embassy in Jordan for narrow political purposes.

One similar instance in the past two weeks was Netanyahu’s public demand that the Palestinian attacker who murdered a settler family at Halamish in the West Bank in retribution for the Temple Mount affair be subject to the death penalty. A second was his proposal (see below) to trade the entire Wadi Ara complex of Arab towns that produced the three original Temple Mount attackers of July 14--all killed on the Mount--to a future Palestinian state in return for the Etzion Bloc of West Bank settlements. It is perfectly clear that Israel will not invoke the death penalty for the Halamish attacker, lest terrorist groups begin executing captured Israelis. Nor does Netanyahu really believe in the practicality of creating a Palestinian state at all, much less one based on far-reaching territorial exchanges that compel Arab citizens of Israel to become Palestinians.

Incidentally, Netanyahu’s knee jerk political reaction on Sunday to an IDF appeals court’s decision to leave in place the conviction of Elor Azaria, the soldier who executed a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron last year, follows the same pattern. The prime minister immediately called for Azaria to be pardoned. It turns out that taking the lead in ultra-nationalist incitement of the public was far more important than the rule of law, deference to the IDF’s own court martial procedures or respect for the “purity of arms”.

A second related issue is the status of Israeli diplomats and security personnel in Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries Israel has overt relations with. The diplomats’ daily situation is precarious due to security concerns; they live in virtual lockdown, their children and sometimes spouses remaining in Israel. Those in Egypt were evacuated several years ago when a mob stormed the Israel Embassy; they have yet to return to an embassy in Egypt, instead commuting and working from hotels. Against this backdrop, concern for the safety of the Israelis in Jordan was understandable, even though Jordan’s efficient army and police seemed to be successfully cordoning off the embassy compound and preventing mob violence.

But at the strategic level, what we are witnessing is a paradox. The closer Israel’s covert security relationship with Egypt and Jordan becomes due to shared concern with militant Islam, the less substance there is to the overt diplomatic relationship, precisely because of concern over militancy among the local populace.

 

Q. The tension with Jordan is not over. But can you, at this stage, offer some thoughts as to how the July 14 “strategic incident” on the Temple Mount evolved and was allowed to escalate?

A. I have two concerns. One touches on the ideological inclinations of some of the Israeli security officials and many of the politicians who dealt with the Temple Mount crisis. Over the past two weeks we heard remarks by populist right-wing government ministers and settler leaders to the effect that we had an opportunity to “do something” about the Mount, meaning exploit the July 14 crisis to expand our sovereign presence there. This implied everything from building a Third Temple to leaving the metal detectors in place as a “statement”. Chief of Police Roni Alsheikh was understood by his fellow security chiefs as advocating a near-messianist approach to dealing with the Mount. As ultra-rightist and religious influence grows in the Israeli body politic and within the security establishment, we are liable to hear more and more non-rational security assessments and approaches that dangerously exacerbate relations with not only the Palestinians and Jordan but the Muslim world in general.

The other concern is about dangerous complacency at the regional strategic and local security level. Alsheikh’s and Netanyahu’s confident insistence on placing metal detectors on the Temple Mount, a Muslim holy site, despite warnings from the intelligence establishment, is the obvious example. But there is more.

Undoubtedly, the killing of Israeli security personnel in the line of duty is a sensitive issue, to be discussed with the utmost caution and respect. So this remark is not to be understood at the personal level. Rather, it is about dangerous institutional complacency.

Recent months have witnessed two Border Patrol guards at the Damascus Gate stabbed to death and two policemen on the Temple Mount shot in the back and killed. In Jordan, at the height of popular incitement against Israel over the Temple Mount crisis, a decision was made to invite local carpenters into the apartment of an embassy security official as if this was business-as-usual. And a settler family was killed in Halamish in the West Bank because it felt so secure, surrounded by millions of Palestinians at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tension, that it had no need to possess a licensed weapon to defend itself.

Why was everyone caught by surprise? These deaths reflect at least in part tactical security complacency that produced tragic outcomes. And tactical over-confidence is a by-product of the strategic level, where Netanyahu is so convinced our Arab neighbors need us to defend against militant Islam that he can openly disparage Jordanian lives. Perhaps, for the moment, he can get away with it. We shall see. But since the Arab revolutions began in 2011, public opinion in neighboring countries has become far more significant in the eyes of neighboring leaders like King Abdullah. Netanyahu’s behavior these past two weeks will not quickly be forgotten. Or forgiven.

 

Q. This takes us back to Netanyahu’s Wadi Ara territorial- exchange proposal. Is this too an instance of over-confident behavior?

A. Yes. Netanyahu’s desire rhetorically to punish the Arabs of Wadi Ara for aiding and abetting the Islamist tendency that sent three local youths to the Temple Mount on July 14 led him to embrace a proposal usually associated with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Israel will transfer to a West Bank-based Palestinian state parts of Israel populated by Arabs and located adjacent to the green line and receive in return corresponding parts of the West Bank populated by settlers. Lieberman responded to Netanyahu’s proposal with a hearty “welcome to the club”.

Full disclosure: I was the first to broach this possibility as a strategic researcher in 1995, as a way of adjusting demographic borders in a final two-state solution settlement. I quickly discovered that not only would most Arab citizens of Israel reject the idea, but the Israel High Court of Justice would almost certainly deem this version of “transfer” a violation of the Arab residents’ basic right to retain citizenship and residency of the country where they live. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman know this. Hence this proposal, in the current context, is pure demagoguery. Netanyahu knew it would insult Wadi Ara residents and disparage the rule of law, to the delight of his Jewish constituents.

But the Wadi Ara idea dovetails with a recent flurry of government proposals to adjust the borders of Jerusalem so as to reduce the city’s Arab population and increase its Jewish population. Fifty years after Israel’s hasty post-war decision to annex an expanded East Jerusalem, the government is becoming aware that close to 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population are Arabs, with the proportion growing from year to year. Should Jerusalem’s Arabs at some point make the tactical decision to vote in municipal elections, Jerusalem could have a Palestinian mayor and/or a Palestinian-dominated city council. This in turn would have far-reaching ramifications not only for the city but for the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Needless to say, Netanyahu would never consider allowing Arab East Jerusalem to become part of a Palestinian state, thereby solving his municipal electoral problem. Instead, the Netanyahu government now supports proposals to place outlying Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods under alternative municipal rule, while attaching to Jerusalem a host of nearby Jewish settlements including Givat Zeev to the north, Maaleh Adumim to the east and the Etzion Bloc to the south.

This would take Arabs off the Jerusalem voting rolls while adding Jews. But it would in effect annex additional parts of the West Bank, beyond Greater Jerusalem, thereby radically creating new and incendiary “facts on the ground” within the context of the Israel-Arab conflict.

Only the complacency of Netanyahu and his government could breed these proposals. Netanyahu is apparently convinced that the Arab world is currently too preoccupied with its Islamist revolutions and too much in need of Israel’s strategic cooperation to object forcefully. And the Trump administration is too naïve and confused to understand what is happening.

I am reminded of Israel’s over-confident behavior after the 1967 Six-Day War. It ended up in the tragedy of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

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