Can Israel calm the storm brewing over Jerusalem? -analysis

This is the time for Israel to be smart, not only right.

Palestinians protest during an anti-Israel protest over tension in Jerusalem, in Gaza City, April 24, 2021. (photo credit: ATIA MOHAMMED/FLASH90)
Palestinians protest during an anti-Israel protest over tension in Jerusalem, in Gaza City, April 24, 2021.
(photo credit: ATIA MOHAMMED/FLASH90)
Israel will need to display a great deal of wisdom in the coming days to calm a perfect storm brewing over Jerusalem.
Here are the elements of that mounting storm:
1. The end of Ramadan, a month that historically brings with it an uptick in violence.
2. The potential evictions of four Palestinian families from homes in the capital’s Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood that were built on land owned by Jews.
3. Jerusalem Day on Monday and the traditional march through the Damascus Gate to the Western Wall. The desire by some Jews to go up to the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day.
4. May 15, the day after the Gregorian date for Israel’s Independence Day, marked by Arabs as Nakba Day, or “Catastrophe Day.”
5. PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s cancellation of the Palestinian elections and the ensuing interest of Fatah to show that it is still fighting for Palestinian rights, and Hamas’s interest in inflaming the situation beyond Jerusalem to both challenge Abbas and Israel.
6. The ongoing political crisis in Israel and the weakness this radiates to those who want to challenge Israel, believing that a transitional government will not be able to commit Israel to a widespread military campaign.
In other words, numerous elements are all coming together in one week in a way that could be particularly combustible.
As such, this is the time for Israel – as the well-worn saying goes – to be smart, not only right.
The Supreme Court leaned decidedly in that direction on Sunday, when – at the request of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit – it decided to postpone until June 8 a hearing scheduled to determine whether the Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood can be evicted.
The postponement of the hearing at this time is wise because in the cost-benefit analysis, Israel would lose more than it would gain by going ahead at this time with the evictions.
What would the country gain by making this move at this time? It would send a signal that it will not shy away from applying its laws all over the city; that Jews will be able to live anywhere in the city; and that property rights will be respected.
The problem is that in the process it will highlight that while the 1970 Absentee Property Law allows Jews to reclaim lost property in east Jerusalem, no similar law exists allowing Palestinians to do the same in the western part of the city. Have fun explaining that legal lacuna to the world.
And what did the country stand to lose by having a hearing on this matter on Monday?
Had the evictions, already green-lighted by the Jerusalem District Court, been approved by the Supreme Court, it would have given Fatah and Hamas the trigger they both seek for an explosion, with the added benefit that they could then blame Israel for the “provocation.” Over the weekend, the international community, including the US, already showed its hand by coming down on Israel for the violence.
SOME ARGUE – not without a legitimate case – that there will never be a time to take such a move and assert Jewish property rights in Jerusalem, that such a move will always be met with violence and the threat of violence, but that if you don’t assert your rights everywhere, you won’t be able to do so anywhere.
But the fact is that Israel can choose both the timing and the place. The question to ask at this time is whether now – with all the other elements at play, including a transitional government with leaders unable to focus fully on this issue and how to defray it – is the best time.
The same is true of the Jerusalem Day march through Damascus Gate, a tradition going back to soon after the Six Day War in 1967.
With the atmosphere in Jerusalem as explosive as it is today, might it not be wiser to divert the march so that it bypasses Damascus Gate – a point of tremendous tension and friction over the last month – and rather go to the Western Wall through Jaffa Gate, skirting the Arab market in the process?
Would an altered route really detract from the joy of the day? Might not violence that could ensue by singing and dancing and waving Israeli flags through an Arab neighborhood not detract from the joy even more?
The same argument used above regarding Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik will be used here as well: If you back down now, you will show weakness and show that you are not in control of your own capital. But is it really necessary to demonstratively show control at the most explosive moment, or might extra sensitivity be the smarter path at certain times?
The police, last week, wisely decided to remove barriers preventing Arabs from congregating on the steps at Damascus Gate after those barriers proved a trigger for violence. Why not preempt this time and prevent something that – in the current atmosphere – is likely to be especially flammable?
To some, this approach only radiates weakness. To some, had this approach been followed, the US would never have moved its embassy to Jerusalem because of the threats of violence, nor would Israel have ever built in Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo, Neveh Ya’acov or Har Homa because each of those moves was accompanied by threats of violence and – in some cases – by actual violence.
BUT ISRAEL can choose its battles. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem was of tantamount importance to Israel’s claim on the city – something worth risking violence for. The same can be said for building new neighborhoods beyond the 1967 lines that are important for maintaining Israeli control over Jerusalem. But not everything falls within this category.
When considering whether it is time to risk violence, it is also worth considering whether there is a government in place that has the full focus to deal with it, the public legitimacy to engage in a full-blown military campaign if need be, and the capacity to deal diplomatically with the fallout.
It is questionable whether the current transitional government fits the bill. The prime minister, defense minister, internal security minister and foreign minister are all busy with political machinations, much of which pits one of them against the other. Are they truly able to link arms as they must to deal with a major conflagration and the international fallout that it would inevitably cause?
Furthermore, if events in Jerusalem lead to a wider conflict and ultimately to a major military campaign, either toward Gaza or in Judea and Samaria, will the current transitional government have the necessary backing of the public to commit troops to battle? Or might the public wonder whether political considerations were behind the government’s tough response?
The recent events also highlight the types of dilemmas Israel will find itself in if Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett are ultimately able to form a “unity” government.
This coalition would consist of Bennett, a former head of the pro-settlement Yesha Council for Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, and Mossi Raz, the former secretary-general of the anti-settlement Peace Now organization.
Bennett and Raz sitting in the same government is the Israeli political equivalent of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the kid in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic Era, with one big difference – nothing else has changed on the ground today heralding the End of Days.
One of the premises of this type of government – one that would include those on the hard Right and those on the hard Left – is that issues that would highlight those difference will not be at the forefront; the government will be so busy tending to economic issues flowing from the coronavirus that the classic Left-Right issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinians will be relegated to the back seat.
This will be possible, according to this logic, because there is currently no diplomatic process happening anywhere on the horizon, and the main challenges facing Israel now are internal.
The events of the last few days, however, show that this is a pipe dream and that the Palestinian issue, while it may have been largely dormant for months as the country and the world dealt with the pandemic, has not disappeared.
One lesson of the last few days for those trying to cobble together a “unity” government is that they better come up with a creative recipe on how to deal with contentious issues like Jerusalem, settlements and the Palestinians that are bound to emerge.
Otherwise, this government will not last any longer than the outgoing coalition of Likud with Blue and White, where the ideological differences, though they existed, were not nearly as pronounced as they would be in a government that includes Yamina and New Hope on the Right, Meretz and Labor on the Left, and one of the Arab parties supporting from the outside.