November 3, 2014 - the Temple Mount, more Jerusalem tension, is Netanyahu cowardly?


This week, Alpher discusses whether last week's shooting of Israeli Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick and the subsequent, nearly unprecedented closing of the Mount for a day indicates that we are on the brink of a holy war or new intifada; where the potential is for further geographical expansion of the Jerusalem tension; whether Netanyahu is cowardly in his decision-making; and if the Netanyahu-Obama relationship "stands to get considerably worse after the November midterm elections."

Q. The shooting last week of Israeli Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick and the subsequent, nearly unprecedented closing of the Mount for a day drew the international focus once again to Jerusalem. Are we on the brink of a holy war? A new intifada?

A. Without doubt, the Glick shooting was a major escalatory event. Without doubt, Jerusalem is now the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without doubt the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is at the core of Jerusalem-based tensions.

And last week those tensions flared. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called the temporary closing of the Mount a "declaration of war", and sent a condolence letter to the family of the Islamic Jihad activist accused by Israel of the Glick attack and killed in an East Jerusalem shootout with an Israel Police SWAT team. On Sunday, Jordan's King Abdullah II (who fills the official function of "custodian" of the Temple Mount mosques by dint of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty) declared that he would "use all means" to defend the Muslim holy places. On Sunday, too, Kemal Khatib, deputy head of the "Northern Branch" of the Israeli Arab Islamist movement (akin to Israel's Muslim Brotherhood), declared in the spirit of the Islamic State that Jerusalem was destined to be "the capital of the Islamist Caliphate". Right-wing Israeli politicians, not to be outdone, accused Abbas of inciting terrorism, praised Glick--perhaps the leading proponent of Jewish prayer on the Mount, advocated changing the 47-year status quo on the Mount, and visited it the moment it was reopened.

On Sunday, too, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared emphatically that the Temple Mount status quo would not change and called on his fellow politicians to prevent incitement. Abbas followed suit and welcomed Netanyahu's remarks. Would these much-delayed words of wisdom and moderation be enough to restore calm?

Some of the escalatory factors are reflections of the political conflict. Major sections of Arab Jerusalem have been the focus of unrest since the July murder there by Jews of a young Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu-Khdeir--one of the events that paved the way for the prolonged summer war between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas. Repeated Israel government-initiated or condoned settlement construction and expansion ventures in and around East Jerusalem have fanned the flames. The collapse of the latest American peace initiative contributed.

Looking deeper, the abysmal failure of a succession of governments in Israel and municipalities in Jerusalem to integrate the Arab municipal sector, permit it to develop normally or provide it with infrastructure in any way equivalent to the level of West Jerusalem has bred deep, and justified, cynicism among Jerusalem Arabs. And the Israel Police does not always seem up to the job of maintaining order in Arab East Jerusalem, particularly when it has to ensure the safety of handfuls of extremist Jewish settlers scattered throughout the Arab sector.

At an even deeper, religious-existential level, the growing push by the powerful settler/National Orthodox faction in the West Bank and inside the Netanyahu government to change the status quo on the Mount and permit Jewish prayer there has had a huge escalatory effect. Islamist activists, themselves a growing presence on the Mount, are convinced that this is merely a first step toward eventually dismantling the mosques on the Mount and replacing them with the Third Temple. Indeed, a Jewish extremist attack on the mosques is the worst nightmare of the Israeli Shin Bet (General Security Service).


Q. Where is the potential for further geographical expansion of the Jerusalem tension?

A. For the Jerusalem "intifada", if that is what it is, to spread to the West Bank would require that it escalate, that Abbas tell his security forces to cease maintaining order there and that he allow Hamas and other Islamist activists a free rein there. That is doubtful. On the other hand, renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza--a constant possibility in view of the lack of progress toward developing the Gaza ceasefire--could contribute to West Bank escalation.

Then there is the Jordan factor. King Abdullah is under pressure from Islamic State supporters at home and from IS itself on his border with Iraq. Faced with a huge refugee burden, Jordan is in bad shape economically. While he fights IS as a member of the US coalition, the last thing Abdullah needs is a flare-up on the Temple Mount where he bears a degree of responsibility. He has actually threatened to cancel the Jordan-Israel peace treaty over this issue.

Israel's anti-Islamist strategic cooperation with Jordan has expanded in recent years. But Netanyahu, despite ballyhooing his alleged cooperation against Islamist threats with Jordan and other Arab countries, is unwilling to supply the kind of quid-pro-quo forward movement on the peace process that might provide the king with room for maneuver vis-a-vis his critics. On the Temple Mount issue, he had better take Abdullah seriously.

Obviously, Israeli politics are not the only source of the current Temple Mount unrest. Yet the place to start calming things down would be Netanyahu's own coalition, which is overloaded with extremist Jewish-nationalist rabble-rousers who thrive on situations like this. Yet politically, Netanyahu himself has of late been moving precisely in their direction in an attempt to preempt them and better position himself for possible elections in 2015.

Then too, Netanyahu now feels he has to fend off American accusations of cowardice.


Q. Indeed, last week a senior White House official allegedly characterized PM Netanyahu as cowardly ("chickenshit") in his decision-making. Do you agree?


A. Epithets like chickenshit and "Aspergery", reportedly applied to Netanyahu by US officials, clearly represent a rhetorical low in Israeli-American relations. Administration loathing of the Israeli prime minister is understandable in view of the latter's open support for US Republicans and his repeated inclination to humiliate President Obama with ideological lectures in the Oval Office and exquisitely-timed settlement-building initiatives. Obama is absolutely right when he admonishes Israel and Israelis that the policies they are following on the Palestinian issue will lead to Israel's demise as a Jewish and democratic state. And he is right to focus his frustrations on Netanyahu.

But does the accusation of cowardice leveled by administration officials and even President Obama in columnist Jeffrey Goldberg's Atlantic article last week make sense?

According to the White House officials Goldberg talked to, Netanyahu is a chicken-shit coward. That pose is acceptable to Washington when it means the Israeli prime minister is "scared to launch wars", for example against Iran's nuclear project 2-3 years ago. But it's a problem when he "won't do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians" and when he "worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency".

I fully understand what's behind administration anger. The spicy language used to express it is almost certainly counter-productive--hence the White House apologies that followed. Beyond these characterizations, I have five problems with the cowardice allegation.

First, it implies that Netanyahu really wants to do the things he tells the administration he envisions but backs down because he fears for his political future. Netanyahu really wants a viable two-state solution? I doubt it very much. He's just more pragmatic than his messianic allies. He covets the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as much as the most devoted settler; he would argue that his way of acquiescing in negotiations and paying lip service to a two-state solution while building more and more settlements is the smartest tactic for holding onto all or most of the territory in the face of international condemnation. And he's right. He would also argue that his repeated threats to attack Iran a few years ago made a key contribution to stiffening the resolve of the international community to do something about Iran. Here too, history may prove him right.

So Netanyahu is a liar, not a coward. To call him now a coward, you have to have believed him when he committed to a two-state solution; Secretary of State Kerry apparently still believes him.

Secondly, Netanyahu's shying away from war with Iran a few years ago may just possibly reflect his, and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak's, reasonable assessment that ultimately such a war would prove detrimental to Israel's interest. Certainly Netanyahu's extreme caution in dealing with the Islamist threat to Israel's north, and even his prolonged hesitation last summer to go to war with Hamas, stand to his credit. One can argue the fine points of these issues, e.g., do they reflect wisdom and real strategic understanding? But to label them "cowardice"?

Third, the disdain displayed by Netanyahu and other Israelis for recent US moves in the region (the list is long and includes abandoning Egypt's Mubarak in 2011, mismanaging Iraq, not intervening in Syria two years ago despite Obama's "red lines", making a mess of Libya in 2011, sponsoring an ill-conceived peace process in 2013-14, and involving Qatar and Turkey in Gaza ceasefire talks in 2014) may have been expressed in terms not befitting a client state that is beholden to the US for a major portion of its security. But there is truth to some of that criticism, which is shared, incidentally, by moderate Sunni Arab allies of the US like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Washington should keep this in mind when attacking Netanyahu.

Fourth, speaking of cowards, what about Mahmoud Abbas? He is afraid to renounce the right of return, afraid even to recognize that there was a temple on the Temple Mount long before the mosques, and afraid to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. My assumption is that he knows that these concessions would be so strongly rejected by the Palestinian people as to nullify any two-state solution based on them. Abbas' saving grace is that he tends not to lie about these issues, as Netanyahu does on his side of the peace equation. But when it comes to the Palestinian issue, the administration should at least have the grace to acknowledge cowardice everywhere.

And fifth, Netanyahu comes from the Middle East, where talk is cheap and only actions really count. He knows the Obama administration's attitude toward him is, in the words of one official quoted by Goldberg, "red-hot anger" over his settlement policies, Jerusalem and undermining Kerry's peace process. But he also appears to assess, based on six years' experience, that President Obama will not galvanize serious pressure on him and that, backed by his Republican allies, he, Netanyahu, can withstand the administration's verbal attacks.

In this regard, Goldberg is mistaken in arguing that the relationship between the US and Israeli governments "is now the worst it's ever been". Remember Eisenhower's threat of sanctions in 1956 over the Suez crisis? Reagan's withholding delivery of fighter aircraft in the early 1980s? Bush 41's denial of loan guarantees? In my forthcoming book, "Periphery: Israel's search for Middle East allies" I relate how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pressured the Shah of Iran to pressure the Iraqi Kurds not to mobilize forces against Iraq in order to support Israel at a time of extreme existential threat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Those were instances of pressure and even blood-letting that would appear to more accurately characterize a genuine crisis in relations. Incidentally, in at least some of these instances the pressure worked.


Q. But Goldberg goes on to argue that the relationship "stands to get considerably worse after the November midterm elections". Do you agree?

A. Yes. Obama will have relatively little to lose in his final two years by adopting a more aggressive pose toward Netanyahu's insults and humiliations. But the near future also comprises the fight against wide-scale Islamist terrorism that threatens both Israel and the US and (in a best case scenario) an agreement with Iran that leaves not only Israel but its Arab neighbors legitimately concerned. Under these circumstances will Obama, who has pledged always to uphold Israeli security and has thus far done so admirably, dare to follow in Eisenhower and Reagan's footsteps and meddle with security cooperation, which is the heart and soul of the relationship?

If not, in the harsh reality of today's Middle East this is liable to be seen by Netanyahu as reaffirming the narrative he is selling the Israeli public, to the effect that the Israeli-American relationship is based on parity between two seemingly "equal" powers and leaders. (Just as Israel's right to build in East Jerusalem allegedly parallels the rights of Paris and London to expand their municipal development; this is Netanyahu's take on the "normalcy" he has bestowed on Israelis). Certainly, that is the way his spin-masters spun this latest crisis, leaving puzzled pundits in the Israeli media to try to explain the meaning of "chickenshit". Now we can only hope Netanyahu really is cowardly enough not to do something stupid by way of proving that he can get away with anything.