July 24, 2017 - Temple Mount crisis escalates


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 Temple Mount crisis; where we start analyzing this; the Israeli mistakes; the Arab response; where Washington is in all this; and how the Temple Mount crisis might end.


Q. Last week you mentioned the Temple Mount attack of Friday July 14 and Israel’s response of deploying metal detectors there as but one of several challenges Netanyahu faces. Now it looks like the Temple Mount challenge has taken over the prime minister’s agenda . . .

A. Absolutely. The Temple Mount crisis has escalated radically. It no longer involves merely security on the Mount. The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken on an increasingly religious dimension that threatens to draw in the entire Muslim world. Relations with the Palestinian Authority are frozen. With Jordan, what began as a challenge to finessing its jurisdiction over the Mount has now been complicated radically by a stabbing and shooting incident at Israel Embassy property in Amman.


Q. Where do we start analyzing this?

A. We owe it to ourselves to start by recalling that this crisis began with an attack by Palestinian Islamists on Israeli policemen guarding the Mount. Last Friday night a settler family was murdered by an Islamist youth. Even Sunday evening’s incident in Amman began with a local Jordanian attacking an Israel Embassy security official. Islamist extremism was involved in all these attacks. And once the extremists take over, there is no telling how far this could escalate.

Already, Israeli mistakes and Islamist media have inflated the crisis to new dimensions. One dimension is the claim of an Israeli challenge to Muslim sovereignty on the Mount. A second dimension is Hamas incitement. A third is the developing crisis with Jordan over the violence that has spread to there. A Palestinian Authority decision to freeze all ties with Israel poses an additional challenge. Yet another dimension portrays the Temple Mount crisis as a microcosm of the Saudi-led inter-Arab dispute with pro-Muslim Brotherhood Qatar. Finally, we encounter a singularly unimpressive effort by the Trump administration to help.


Q. What are the Israeli mistakes?

A. A day after the July 14 Temple Mount attack but before the real Temple Mount crisis broke out, PM Netanyahu was in France, on his way to Hungary. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was in China. Abbas cut short his trip and came home. Netanyahu did not. He tried to manage the crisis from afar, including discussion with security chiefs regarding ways to improve security on the Mount.

This was a mistake. Surely Netanyahu learned something from the Hasmonean tunnel opening of September 1996, an ill-considered step that caught him abroad during his first tenure as prime minister and led to the deaths of 17 IDF soldiers and around 100 Palestinians. But Netanyahu cannot even offer the excuse of distance from the events for his earlier mistake: his July 15 decision, without in-depth consultations, to place metal detectors at all entrances to the Temple Mount esplanade, on the facile assumption that such a tactical measure would solve everything.

The metal detectors were understood by Muslim worshippers not as a necessary security precaution but as an Israeli invasion of the Mount. Here we apparently encounter Israeli ignorance of Muslim perceptions of what constitutes a Temple Mount mosque. For Muslims, the entire esplanade is part of the two Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) mosques, al-Aqsa and the Mosque of Omar. Since the metal detectors are Israeli, they constitute an Israeli incursion into the mosques, thereby seemingly verifying long-standing Israeli Arab Islamist propaganda claims that Israel is attempting gradually to take over the Mount.

Here Israeli protestations that even in Mecca mosques are guarded by metal detectors are useless. In Mecca, unlike in Jerusalem, the metal detectors are in effect Arab and Muslim, not Jewish and Israeli. Moreover, in Jerusalem the step of deploying metal detectors was not even coordinated with the Waqf, the Islamic endowment that manages the Mount on Jordan’s behalf. Indeed, it was apparently not fully coordinated by the Israel Police with the IDF and the Shin Bet Domestic Security Service either.

Israel’s “case” was compounded by incendiary Jewish rhetoric. Jewish extremists (according to one report, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely) declared that the entire affair offers an ideal opportunity to build the Third Temple on the Mount. Meanwhile, Muslim rioters were killed in Jerusalem. A settler family was murdered in the West Bank by a Muslim youth incited by Arab social media. Jewish politics kicked in, too, with Education Minister Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home party “promising” his constituents that Netanyahu would not back down, thereby constraining Netanyahu’s options from a political standpoint. Indeed, by Monday it was plain that Netanyahu and the entire Israeli security establishment did indeed face damage to their capacity to deter future provocations if they backed down over the security issue without prior coordination with the Waqf, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Finally, one reason for Netanyahu’s ignorant complacence may have been the fact that he has convinced himself that the Arab world is no longer interested in the Palestinian issue; the twin threats posed by ISIS and Iran take priority and guarantee close Arab coordination with Israel. Here he made the mistake many Arab rulers made when revolutions broke out in 2011: he ignored the Arab street and the Arab media that incites it. And he made an additional mistake that can be traced to his own readiness to maintain a coalition dominated by the Orthodox nationalist-religious right: he ignored at his peril the increasingly religious dimension of the conflict that, from the Jewish standpoint, his policies nourish.


Q. This brings us to the Arab response . . .

A. By now the Arab media has made sure that the Arab masses have forgotten the initial July 14 Temple Mount attack by Israeli Arab Islamists that started it all. Israel is accused of bloody and unprovoked aggression. Palestinian Authority attempts to maintain calm have given way to Sunday’s announcement of a total freeze on coordination with Israel. To the extent this includes security coordination (which traditionally in situations like this simply goes underground), this endangers both Palestinians and Israelis by exposing them to violent attack inspired and coordinated by Gaza-based Hamas.

Jordan, too, would have a great deal to lose by suspending security ties with Israel. At the time of writing, authorities in Amman were insisting on interrogating the Israeli security official who shot his attacker, even though the Israeli enjoys diplomatic immunity.

Indeed Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all initially offered to advise Israel regarding ways to deal with the Mount affair. This lack of solidarity with his cause infuriated the Palestinian Authority’s Abbas. But in the ensuing days the Temple Mount began to resemble a microcosm of the Arab world’s current schism between a Saudi and Egyptian-led camp and Qatar. The Qataris have not yielded to Saudi-led demands to close down al-Jazeera and cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood whose Palestinian branch, Hamas, has taken credit for the July 14 Temple Mount attack. Worse, al-Jazeera is leading anti-Israel incitement regarding the Mount, portraying as catastrophic any and all events in which the Israel Police try to maintain or restore calm in and around Jerusalem and in the West Bank. And then there is Turkey’s President Erdogan, to whom the Temple Mount crisis presents an ideal opportunity to try to assert neo-Ottoman Islamic authority through incitement of his own. Under these circumstances, the moderate Arab states prefer to withdraw from involvement.


Q. Where is Washington in all this?

A. Initially the Trump administration sufficed with conference call consultations with Netanyahu by the “Big 3” team of peace emissary Greenblatt, Ambassador Friedman and peace trouble-shooter Kushner. By Monday Greenblatt was on his way to the region. Needless to say, the specter of three Orthodox American Jews--who until six months ago could only be described as avid supporters of West Bank settlements--now trying to advise and mediate what has overnight become a Jewish-Islamic religious conflict is, to say the least, interesting.


Q. But haven’t the three, and particularly Greenblatt, succeeded during those six months in establishing a degree of credibility with the Arab side?

A. Greenblatt has not succeeded in reconvening peace negotiations. He has reportedly instituted some people-to-people and inter-religious projects. He has also succeeded in stimulating “economic peace” measures in the form of Israeli electricity supply to the northern West Bank. He has inaugurated a Palestinian role in the “Red-Dead” scheme to supply electricity and desalinated water by replenishing the shrinking Dead Sea with Red Sea water.

But all these projects have been in the planning stage for years. Certainly Netanyahu is not impressed. In Paris he told President Macron that it would be “difficult to push forward quickly with the American initiative”. He also stated that he wants a “parallel” Israel-Arab track, meaning what is known as “top-down” peace--a notion Israel’s Arab neighbors reject openly, however willing they may be to cooperate with Israel strategically.

Meanwhile Netanyahu’s own Cabinet has torpedoed an economic-peace scheme to expand the West Bank town of Qalqilya. And the Palestinian Authority leadership is waging “economic war” on the Gaza Strip by withholding salaries and electricity subsidies.

All in all, there is no Trump peace process that might conceivably render Greenblatt an acceptable mediator regarding the Temple Mount crisis. Even Greenblatt’s economic confidence-building measures, where they still exist, are unimpressive.


Q. Well, then, how will the Temple Mount crisis end?

A. Only three predictions seem relatively safe at this point in time. First, Israel will have to “back off” the Mount and remove the metal detectors. Already, alternative closed circuit cameras are being installed, though these too could prove provocative and inciting in Palestinian Muslim eyes.

Second, no matter what the outcome, the Islamists will declare victory and Arab media will trumpet the achievement. Israeli tactical deterrence regarding the Mount specifically and the Palestinian conflict in general will have been damaged. As in past instances, it will recover over time.

Third, Netanyahu and the Israeli right have been administered a rude reminder that they cannot depend on Arab world indifference toward the Palestinians. Arab strategic coordination with Israel will not bring about acquiescence in Israeli rule over the West Bank and East Jerusalem and will not relegate the Palestinian issue to the dustbin of history. The Palestinian conflict is alive and kicking. Israel’s relations with the Arab world have been damaged.

There is no “economic peace”. There is no “top down peace”. There is no stable status quo. Israel does not have a viable strategy for resolving the Palestinian issue.