The demon's out of the bottle

The Temple Mount crisis has not yet abated. It’s virtually impossible to retrieve the stone that was thrown down into the well.

July 27, 2017 22:19
Temple Mount

A man walks next to the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount compound . (photo credit: REUTERS)

On Thursday morning, Israel removed all the new security measures from Temple Mount. It was a desperate step aimed at restoring the status quo at one of the most explosive spots on Earth.

In two weeks, the Palestinians scored a huge victory in the war on hearts and minds, something they had been unable to achieve during the two intifadas.

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The Temple Mount crisis has not yet abated. It’s virtually impossible to retrieve the stone that was thrown down into the well.

Although Israel has backtracked and removed the metal detectors from all the entrances to the Temple Mount – and announced that it will instead increase the number of guards and employ state-of-the-art cameras – as often is the case, the Muslim appetite has been whet.

Israel has gotten itself into a very sticky situation. Riots are intensifying, and it seems as if the demon has gotten out of the bottle.

In hindsight, we can see that the writing was on the wall. Every incident that’s taken place on or adjacent to the Temple Mount over the years has set off huge waves, like a political tsunami.

The prime example is when the Western Wall tunnels were opened in 1996. Israel considers the tunnels a fascinating archeological discovery that is a great attraction for tourists, but the Muslims view it as an attack on the sanctity of the Temple Mount.

In the days following the opening of the tunnels, more than 100 Jews and Arabs, both within Israel as well as in the West Bank, were killed and many were wounded.

This heavy price did not, of course, justify the decision.

Fourteen years later, in September 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount, accompanied by hundreds of security personnel, which intensified the effect of his visit greatly. Soon after, the situation spiraled out of control.

At Netzarim junction, the media caught on camera the staged death of Muhammad al-Dura, and six years of bloodshed on both sides ensued.

Then another 15 years went by, and in 2015 unrest once more broke out on the Temple Mount, leading to another heavy wave of terrorist attacks. This so-called “knife intifada” was stopped only by the strong, wise efforts of the IDF and the Shin Bet security agency.

Knowledge of all of these events, and of course the vulnerable and sensitive security situation, should have been in the forefront of the minds of decision-makers in Jerusalem when they considered taking policy decisions following the recent murder of the two Druse border policemen, Kamil Shaanan and Haiel Stawi.

Of course, we must ensure that no weapons enter the Temple Mount, and that no attacks take place there, but Israel’s response did not take into consideration historical and current events. On the Temple Mount, many entities join together, both openly and in concealed ways.

There’s the Sunni community, whose relationship with Israel is actually quite good at present; Jordan, which has signed a peace agreement with Israel; the Palestinian Authority, which is lingering in a state of uncertainty regarding the future; the Islamic Movement in Israel, which is trying to stabilize its position; MKs from the Joint List, whose status is unstable; and any other organization that has managed to stick its nose in our business, such as the UN and its subsidiary organizations.

The initial decision to install metal detectors on the Temple Mount was the right decision from an operational and security point of view, but wrong from a strategic point of view, since the damage outweighed the benefits. The public dispute among the Shin Bet, the IDF, and the Israel Police exposed all the various issues.

From the outset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have known that even the most minimal change in security enforcement at the Temple Mount would cause shock waves among the Muslim community, which would throw us right back into the same scenario we’ve experienced in the past – and maybe even worse this time.

The more sophisticated Israel becomes in its war on terrorism, so too do the terrorists. When we employ state-of-the-art technological networks to track terrorist cells, this encourages lone-wolf attacks that cannot be identified in advance.

Israeli forces are successful in uncovering terrorist networks, but have no idea how to identify which person will wake up in the morning, take a knife from his kitchen, and stab the first Israeli he comes across.

Several red lines were crossed during recent clashes between Israel’s security professionals and political officials. Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev called the Shin Bet – one of the best anti-terrorist organizations in the world – delusional.

Other politicians also attacked the Shin Bet, and instead supported the Israel Police’s position, mostly for political reasons. There is an atmosphere of competition between some of the ministers and the prime minister, and it is questionable who the true leader of the right-wing camp is.

A few ministers took advantage of this opportunity to assert Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, even though it harmed the status quo. It’s inconceivable that they didn’t understand the ramifications of such a move.

The prime minister apparently ignored the extreme change in the atmosphere, even though he should have recognized the deterioration from day to day, especially after the heinous massacre of the Salomon family in Halamish last Friday. But now it’s hard to return to the status quo.

The higher you climb, the harder it is to come back down. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it was the rapid mediation by the head of the Shin Bet – the security professional – which led to a quick agreement between Israel and Jordan and the removal of the metal detectors.

The last thing Israel needs at this time is renewed friction with the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas went too far when he severed ties – including on security issues – with Israel.

Coordination on security issues is no less important to the Palestinian Authority than it is for Israel. Abbas is just punishing himself. This is causing damage not just on a local level, but could also damage US President Donald Trump’s efforts to forge a “great deal.”

The US envoy to the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, quickly arrived in Israel in an effort to douse the flames, and as US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the Israel-US Caucus in the Knesset: “Without making a lot of noise, and by working carefully and properly, we’ve succeeded in coping with the crisis.” Or, in less diplomatic terms: “Guys, we got you out of the mud.”

Let’s hope that it stays that way.

No one on the Israeli side is interested in a third intifada, unlike the anti-establishment parties on the Palestinian side; namely Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, which support the breakout of a new intifada.

The next few days will be decisive in determining whether we can succeed in getting the demon back inside the bottle. In the meantime, the demon is wreaking havoc outside.

The writer is a Knesset MK from the Zionist Union Party, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and head of the Caucus for US-Israel Relations.

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