As any firefighter will attest, it’s usually easier to start a fire than to douse it. Especially a fire that spreads quickly.
At the end of April, when violence erupted with the beginning of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, the police were able to defuse the situation by removing barricades they erected at the site to prevent people on their way to al-Aqsa Mosque from congregating on the steps.
That was relatively painless. The reason given for the violence was the barricades, so to douse the violence, remove the barricades. Cause and effect.
The problem is that the violence has erupted again, this time on the Temple Mount, inside al-Aqsa Mosque, and there is no clear cause and effect. There are no barriers to be removed, as was the case a few weeks ago, nor metal detectors that were blamed for rioting on the Temple Mount four years ago and whose removal brought quiet then.
Hamas, which is interested in the situation spiraling completely out of control, said what needs to be removed is any Jewish presence from the Temple Mount, including the police. But that is not going to happen.
Israel’s dilemma right now is to find that key to defusing the situation, to find that cause or actor that could change the dynamic.
It is not going to be easy.
Sometimes in the past, when violence flared on the Temple Mount, Jordan – with its historical role as a custodian of non-Jewish holy sites in the city – could be asked to step in and help calm down the situation. But today, relations between Jerusalem and Amman are at a low ebb, and King Abdullah II – with plenty of internal problems of his own – is unlikely to go that extra mile and help Israel extract itself from a difficult situation.
Unless, of course, the violence gets out of hand, Hamas gains the upper hand and Abdullah feels that Hamas’s control of the West Bank could spread to his kingdom and threaten him. Or unless the US nudges Jordan into playing a constructive role in tamping down the tension.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also has no interest to serve as a calming influence. If anything, the opposite is true.
A few days ago, there was a great deal of anger on the Palestinian street toward Abbas because of his decision to cancel the PA elections. But with Israeli police “desecrating” al-Aqsa, the postponement of the elections is very much yesterday’s news. He is now in a pitched competition with Hamas over who can show the most support for east Jerusalem Arabs.
Washington would like to help calm things down, but its influence is limited. Instead, over the last number of days it has fallen back on old patterns, issuing bland “even-handed” statements calling on both sides to show restraint, on both sides to work to calm down the situation, and grouping Palestinian terrorism like the attacks in Samaria last week in the same sentence with Jewish “price tag” violence.
The State Department issued a statement about the violence on Friday, and then on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and released a readout of the conversation, which said he expressed Washington’s “serious concerns” about the situation in Jerusalem,
Ben-Shabbat, according to media reports, pushed back against international intervention, saying this only serves the inciters of the violence because it gives them what they are looking for – international condemnation of Israel and emergency meetings at the UN.
Israel also cannot now look to its new Arab partners in the Gulf to step in and try to calm down the situation. Why not? Because the violence is happening at one of the holiest sites in Islam during the holiest month and – on Friday night – on one of Islam’s holiest nights.
This is something that infuriates Muslims all over the world, and if they are not infuriated on their own, there are those like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who incite them to ensure that they will be infuriated. The United Arab Emirates, regardless of how much it prizes its new relationship with Israel, is not going to swim against that angry stream.
One unique direction Israel may presently look at to help de-escalate the situation is Ra’am head Mansour Abbas, who has emerged as the coalition kingmaker.
As Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and Yamina head Naftali Bennett are in talks with Abbas to get him to support their government from the outside – or even join it – this could be the time for someone to take him aside and urge him to work with the police to calm down the situation, arguing that this violence is not good for anyone.
It’s not good for Israel, and it’s not good for Abbas, because if it continues and the Israeli Arabs support or even take part in it, it would erode the legitimacy the Arab parties – especially Ra’am – have won among large swaths of the Israeli public to either be full or silent partners in the government.
In the current tense situation, this could be a moment for Abbas to use his connections with the government and work with it and the police to defuse it, perhaps by bringing his own supporters to al-Aqsa en masse to pray, having worked out an arrangement with the police beforehand. He could then say he won a police agreement to partially withdraw and enable massive prayers at the site.
Abbas is the leader of one small Arab party, yet he has emerged as someone who could very well determine who will be Israel’s prime minister. There is no one silver bullet that can diffuse the situation in Jerusalem, but Arab voices calling for calm and trying to tamp down the tension, rather than fanning the flames, would be especially welcome at a time like this. Abbas is uniquely situated to fill that role. If he so desires.
If he doesn’t, then those courting him politically might feel compelled to take a second look.