October 20, 2014 - Fighting IS and an escalation of tensions in Jerusalem


This week, Alpher discusses the mosaic of radically conflicting interests among countries and peoples ostensibly fighting for the same cause - fighting ISIS and the growing escalation of tensions between Jews and Muslims on and around the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem in general.

Q. With the United States now deeply involved in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, its regional “allies” and “friends” seem anything but genuine partners. Can you make sense of this mosaic of radically conflicting interests among countries and peoples ostensibly fighting for the same cause?

A. It makes very little sense. Clearly, it is all the more difficult for Washington to achieve its goal of ultimately destroying ISIS (also known as ISIL, IS and Daish) with this regional coalition. Here are the many conflicting loyalties as I understand them.

Turkey, a NATO ally that has a long common border with both Iraq and Syria, is at least as interested in deposing the Assad regime in Syria as it is in fighting ISIS, which after all is an extension of the Sunni Islamist opposition to Assad that Turkey has sponsored. Sunni-dominated Turkey also has little sympathy for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Finally, because of its own problematic Kurdish minority, Turkey is ambivalent regarding Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish opposition to ISIS. The Syrian Kurds are linked with the violent Kurdish opposition inside Turkey.

In contrast, the US supports the Shiite government in Iraq and is hesitant about actively opposing Assad for fear lest extremist Islam fill a power vacuum in Damascus. The US is also working closely with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. Yet for geostrategic reasons, Turkey is without doubt Washington’s most important regional ally. Without active Turkish collaboration, the US will be hard put to win its war against ISIS.

Turning to Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government there, backed by Iran and loosely allied with Syria’s Assad, is suspicious of all Sunnis and Kurds. This is the government that Washington is making strenuous efforts to hold together, for two reasons: first, because Iraq too opposes the extremist ISIS, and second, because since 2003 the US is invested in state-building in Iraq even if this means abetting Iran and opposing Kurdish independence.

Iran, which is pro-Shiite, pro-Iraq and pro-Assad, is now loosely allied with the US in opposing ISIS. This development cannot but affect the course of the US-led nuclear negotiations with Tehran with their November 24 deadline. And it makes Israel and all the moderate Sunni Arab states that fear Iranian encroachment exceedingly nervous.

The Kurds in Iraq enjoy far-reaching autonomy and are toying with the option of declaring their independence. Those in Syria have refused to join an anti-Assad coalition for fear of the extremist motives of the Syrian Islamists. So all Kurds oppose ISIS actively and have made a major military contribution to the US-led coalition. Washington collaborates with the Syrian Kurds even though they are allied with a Turkish Kurdish group that is on the US terrorist list. Still the US, with its commitment to Iraqi state-building, opposes Iraqi Kurdish independence. And it seeks to work more closely with Ankara and to overcome Turkey’s ambivalence despite the latter’s opposition to the Syrian Kurds.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates are part of the anti-ISIS military coalition. But they oppose Iranian influence and inroads in the Arab Middle East and actively seek the downfall of the Assad regime, regardless of the consequences. Large, influential and wealthy segments of their populations have actually financed ISIS along with some of the only slightly more moderate anti-Assad Syrian Sunni Islamist groups. Hence their participation in the anti-ISIS coalition is tenuous at best.

That leaves four minor Arab participants. Egypt could and should play a major role fighting ISIS, but instead is busy combating Islamists in Sinai and Libya. Besides, it has fallen from favor in Washington due to the Sissi regime’s repressive policies. Lebanon is hopelessly conflicted among, first, its own Shiites (Hezbollah) and some Christians who support Assad and oppose the Sunni Islamists, second, moderate Sunnis and Christians who back the US, and third, extremist Sunnis with ISIS links, particularly in northern Lebanon.

In Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy has joined the anti-ISIS coalition despite or perhaps because of concerns over its own increasingly vocal Sunni Islamists. Like neighboring Israel, it fears both Islamists and pro-Assad forces like Hezbollah along its border with Syria; it can ill afford to commit too many military resources farther abroad in northern Iraq and Syria. Finally, wealthy renegade emirate Qatar is trying to buy favor with virtually everyone in a perpetual balancing act among Iran, the US, the anti-ISIS and the pro-Islamist forces.

Q. Then there is Russia.

A. Keeping firmly to the sidelines of the anti-ISIS coalition, Moscow strongly supports Assad in Syria as well as the Iranian regime and fiercely opposes militant Sunni Islam, which has launched attacks inside Russia itself. But its differences with the Obama administration regarding Crimea and Ukraine sharply constrain any urge it may have to cooperate with Obama against ISIS.

With friends like these. . .

Q. A few weeks ago, you remarked on the growing escalation of tensions between Jews and Muslims on and around the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem in general. The situation seems to be getting worse.

A. Particularly on the Temple Mount, where Muslim and Jewish extremists are fueling the fire. Last week witnessed both clashes on the Mount and a radical ramping up of the accompanying rhetoric. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah urged the international community to protect the Palestinian people and put an end to mosque attacks (including a “price-tag” arson in a village near Nablus) and to “act against the daily violations committed against the holy sites, particularly al-Aqsa Mosque” on the Mount. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal stated in the Qatari capital Doha, "We call on all our people inside the country to hurry up to al-Aqsa to defend it." Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in an unusual intervention, called on Palestinians to maintain a constant presence on the Mount to protect al-Aqsa.

At one point, last Tuesday, Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch threatened to close the entire compound if members of the two faiths could not be present in the area peacefully. "We want (the compound) to stay open for Muslims and Jews, but if Jews can't go there, neither can Muslims," the minister was quoted as saying by military radio.

Q. What lies behind this escalation?

The deep historical and strategic background is important.

Until the energetic emergence of the Zionist movement around 100 years ago, Muslim religious historians readily acknowledged that the al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the ruins of the first and second temples--the focus of age-old Jewish prayer and longing. Islam sees itself as a successor religion to Judaism and Christianity, superior to them but recognizing their heritage, so it made sense that the third holiest site in Islam was built atop the ancient temple, in effect supplanting it. Still, prior to the advent of the State of Israel, Jews were in no position to demand even visiting rights on the Mount.

Zionism changed this historiography. Sensing a Jewish threat to the sacred Islamic nature of the holy land, Palestinian scholars began arguing that “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount”--a refrain heard repeatedly from the late Yasser Arafat as well as from Abbas. In a parallel historical reversal, the Palestinians now claim that they are the original Canaanites and that the Jews, who are not a people but merely co-religionists, are a comparatively late and essentially European arrival on the scene.

It was against this backdrop that in June 1967, victorious Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan hastily removed the Israeli flag from the captured Mount and turned it over to the Jordanian Islamic religious establishment--whose preeminent status on the Mount, incidentally, is enshrined in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. It was agreed that Jews could now visit the Mount, but only as tourists.

Dayan’s decision was taken to avoid turning the Mount into a primary focus of Jewish-Muslim tensions. It was rendered easy by virtue of the fact that, at the time, the entire orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish establishment declared all of the Mount to be out-of-bounds to Jews, lest they violate the holy of holies by treading directly above the ruins of the temple. Accordingly, for years only secular Jews ventured onto the Mount, causing little friction. In contrast, in Hebron the post-1967 Israeli occupation forced the Muslim establishment to share the Tomb of the Patriarchs with Jews seeking to pray there--a move that has since, despite disruptions like the Baruch Goldstein massacre of 1994, become entrenched in established practice.

What has changed in recent years is the growth of both Jewish and Muslim neo-fundamentalist attitudes toward the Mount. On the Jewish side, a school of orthodox rabbis and scholars has concluded that Jews can stand on certain areas of the Mount and even pray there. Some extremist Jewish circles speak of the day when they will build the third temple--obviously, on the ruins of the mosques--and some Muslim circles insist on taking them seriously. On the Palestinian side, the Israeli Arab Islamist movement has “adopted” the Mount, with West Bank Islamists taking increasingly extreme attitudes that rule out any Jewish link.

We recall that it was a visit by the secularist Ariel Sharon that triggered a violent Arab reaction that morphed into the second intifada in late September 2000. Note that for Palestinian Muslims, the presence of Israelis merely standing on the Mount is now sometimes termed a “settler invasion of al-Aqsa” (Jews are no longer even allowed to enter the two mosques as tourists). And while open Jewish prayer is still prohibited there, the presence of orthodox Jews merely moving their lips in prayer on the Mount is enough to trigger serious unrest.

One obvious reason for the growth of both Jewish and Muslim extremist attitudes regarding the Mount is the abject failure of repeated attempts, in the course of more than 20 years of Oslo-related peace negotiations, to reach agreement on the status of the Mount and the rest of the Jerusalem Holy Basin (the Old City, the Western Wall, the City of David/Silwan and Mount of Olives). Offers by Ehud Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2008) to institute a minor Israeli role on the Mount or in administering it within the framework of an end-of-conflict two-state agreement, without touching the mosques or affecting their status and as part of an arrangement providing for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, have generally just fueled Palestinian suspicions of ultimate Jewish motives. A second reason is the growing dominance of the settler movement with its messianic ideology. And yet a third is the rampant spread in recent years of militant Islam.

What would have happened had Dayan, in the flush and trauma of victory in 1967, forcibly opened the Mount to an active Jewish presence alongside Muslims as in Hebron, is a matter of conjecture. As a Jew, it makes sense to me that in a perfect world Jews should be able to pray on the Mount, as close as they like to the ruins of the ancient Temple. But that is not about to happen anytime soon, unless we want to trigger a major religious conflagration that dwarfs the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict.