This week, Alpher discusses whether the set of understandings between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif acheived by Secretary of State Kerry will end the violence; the overall effect of the mini-intifada of the past month; why Jordan’s King Abdullah couldn’t play a more active role, without recourse to Kerry; what we are to make of bewildering statements by Netanyahu, to a World Zionist Congress audience in a speech in English, that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, suggested to Hitler in 1941 that he annihilate the Jews (“burn them”) rather than expelling them and that as prime minister he has built far less in the settlements than his predecessors;
Q. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Kerry appears to have achieved an agreed set of understandings between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Will this end the violence?
A. Whether these new-old “rules of the game” for the Mount work, at least temporarily, appears to depend on two factors. First, will Netanyahu’s acknowledgement that non-Muslims visit the Mount but do not pray there be understood and enforced wisely by all concerned, and for how long? Will Jordan and Israel, upon confronting scenes of tension or violence on the Mount transmitted by the closed-circuit TV the parties have agreed to install, concur in their interpretation of what is being portrayed, who is at fault, and how to deal with it? Second, is the Temple Mount still the catalyst and focus of the violence or is the violence by now spreading out of control on the West Bank?
Here it bears mention that, while the Temple Mount status quo issue initiated the violence, it is not at all clear that a new status quo has been reached or even an old one reinforced. Jews were not supposed to pray on the Mount before the violence broke out. But it was enough for Muslims to witness messianic Orthodox Jews standing on the Mount to initiate violence. In parallel, Muslims did not always suffice with praying, preferring to instigate violence. Will Netanyahu and the Jordanian religious authorities (Waqf) now resolutely and permanently keep all the troublemakers out?
Then too, the arrangements reached in Amman on Saturday have little if anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. Conceivably, Netanyahu added some additional commitments regarding restrictions on settlement construction and economic benefits for Palestinians that might reinforce a temporary lull. But no more than temporary.
Q. So how do you sum up the overall effect of the mini-intifada of the past month?
A. Shortly after the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, in early 1988, I had the opportunity to interview young Palestinian men from Gaza and the West Bank who had been apprehended by the Israeli military in the act of attacking Israeli settlers. They all repeated the same mantra: all we want is a state of our own next to Israel.
The mantra of the current wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis has until now been different: Al-Aqsa is in danger; Israel wants to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount and replace them with a third temple. And the Palestinians voicing this mantra have been primarily not from Gaza and the West Bank but from Israel proper and from Arab areas of East Jerusalem that were annexed by Israel in 1967. In other words, the issue at stake has been more religious than political. And those acting on it have been mainly Arabs who enjoy far more rights and privileges than their brethren in the Palestinian Authority and in Hamas’s Gazan mini-state.
The first intifada eventually ushered in the Oslo process, which began in 1993. The second intifada, which began in September 2000, eventually helped catalyze--through American and internal Israeli pressures--the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The current violence--whether it is eventually termed a third intifada will depend on its duration and overall penetration into Israeli society—signals that that process is morphing into something both ugly and dangerous.
In the course of 20 years of negotiating Oslo, it turned out that neither side could make the concessions necessary to end the conflict and create a Palestinian state. The Palestinian side has found it impossible to give up the “right of return” of refugees from 1948 (now five million) and even to recognize the Jewish-Israeli history of the Temple Mount. The current Israeli leadership is less generous than its predecessors regarding the territorial issues, particularly a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. And while it denies trying to change the Temple Mount status quo, it embodies and has until now encouraged elements who seek precisely such a change.
With the passage of time, both sides have become more cynical and less engaged. The last outside mediator to try his hand at a peace process, John Kerry, failed because, among other reasons, he ignored both the lessons of Oslo’s failures and the fact that he was dealing with two weak and recalcitrant leaders.
Today no one in Israel and the Palestinian Authority talks about a two-state process. Secretary Kerry has just commendably brought about an Israel-Arab understanding regarding the Temple Mount that reflects a wise downsizing of ambitions regarding a “solution”. This is potentially very significant insofar as it points to the direction in which the conflict is moving.
The current violence and Israel’s response offer a perfect illustration of the increasingly “internal”--even tribal--nature of the entire conflict. First, since all Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are under varieties of Israeli rule, the violence has embraced them all.
Second, the issue currently at stake has involved primarily religion and identity (the mosques, the Temple Mount) rather than politics. The main instigators were the Israeli Islamist movement and the Israeli (Jewish) Temple Mount movements.
Third, in combating the violence Israel is increasingly integrating its army and police forces. When the “enemy” that an army confronts is domestic, something is very much amiss.
Fourth, to combat the violence Israel has imposed restrictions on the movement of Arab residents in East Jerusalem, i.e., of Israel itself.
Finally, in deploying Palestinian Authority security forces to prevent violence emanating from the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged that this is essentially an internal Israeli affair that has nothing to do with two states and that the surrounding Arab world is incapable of offering his cause genuine support. Even Hamas in the Gaza Strip appears to have adopted this approach.
This round of violence signals that the agenda is, at least for now, no longer an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Rather, the agenda concerns the modalities of managing the very dangerous slippery slope we are sliding down toward some sort of ugly and violent one-state or single-entity reality. And while that renders the conflict somehow “internal”, there is no denying the overwhelming effect on both sides of the revolutionary, Islamist and violent events transpiring throughout the Arab world, beginning just beyond the borders of Israel/Palestine.
Q. Why couldn’t Jordan’s King Abdullah play a more active role, without recourse to Kerry?
A. Abdullah is caught between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, Jordan’s own Palestinian population is agitating against Israel. On the other, Abdullah needs close strategic cooperation with Israel against the Islamic State and other Islamist militants massing on Jordan’s northern and eastern borders. This is a familiar strategic situation for Jordan, which is surrounded by stronger powers, and Abdullah’s cautious behavior is therefore understandable.
Kerry succeeded because Abdullah as well as Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas all were “ripe” for an agreement that none of them could initiate on his own.
Q. Last week Netanyahu told a World Zionist Congress audience, in a speech in English, that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, suggested to Hitler in 1941 that he annihilate the Jews (“burn them”) rather than expelling them. And Netanyahu claimed that as prime minister he has built far less in the settlements than his predecessors. What are we to make of these bewildering statements?
A. The first one is just plain false and has been condemned as such by both Holocaust experts and scholars of the Palestinian national movement during the pre-state period (before 1948). That Netanyahu apparently latched onto an obscure and discredited alternative thesis reflected his need to attribute Nazi-like characteristics to the Palestinians as part of his propaganda war and to rally Israelis and Diaspora Jews against the Palestinians through his usual scare tactics, this time falling back on the Holocaust. This was pure mendacious incitement.
Netanyahu made this remark on the eve of a trip to Berlin to meet with Chancellor Merkel. He obviously misread the German reaction to his attempt to spread the blame for the Final Solution beyond Hitler to a Palestinian Muslim extremist. Thus it fell upon Merkel to set the record straight, insist with great honesty and dignity that the blame is entirely German, and in effect rebuke Netanyahu for his very ugly allusions.
As to settlement building, Netanyahu has indeed slowed down the pace in deference to US and primarily EU pressures that are particularly hard to rebuff when there is no peace process. But his remark referred mainly to the West Bank settlement blocs—not to the outlying settlements and outposts that his government has been steadily “legitimizing”, and not to East Jerusalem where his pace of construction has kept up with his predecessors.
But why did those predecessors build more? Why did Ehud Barak set the record as prime minister with over 5,000 construction starts in a year in 2000? The explanation is truly pathetic. For one, left-wing prime ministers like Barak tended to approve a lot of settlement construction in the hope of “buying” peace and quiet on the part of the settlers while the government proceeded with peace process negotiations, in Barak’s case with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. That this was a counterproductive tactic goes without saying. Barak ended up without peace and with many more settlements.
Then too, some left-wing prime ministers, beginning with Rabin, subscribed to a Greater Jerusalem strategy that emphasized the need to surround the Arab parts of the city with Jewish neighborhoods, even as they evinced a readiness to withdraw from all or most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This too was counterproductive, insofar as it countered the Palestinian need and demand for a capital in Jerusalem by radically restricting potential access to that capital from the West Bank. This, in turn, made it that much more difficult to reach an agreed two-state solution.
Sadly, then, on settlement construction Netanyahu is in good company. That he was knowingly falsifying the picture he presented to his audience last week is reflected in remarks he made just days earlier, in Hebrew to his constituents, to the effect that “under my leadership there is settlement momentum in the capital and in Judea and Samaria.”
Remember when only the Palestinians could be blamed for saying one thing in their own language and something very different in English?