Israel’s surrender on the Temple Mount

A comparison between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to open the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 and the 2017 Temple Mount crisis.

Netanyahu at Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu at Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WHEN THE crisis over the installment of metal detectors on the Temple Mount began, the Israeli opposition ransacked its organizational memory and sought to compare the move and the Arab blowback to the decision by the then-neophyte Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to open the Western Wall tunnels in 1996.
That decision triggered a wave of violence as Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority claimed that the tunnels’ objective were a nefarious Jewish plot to undermine the foundations of the Al-Aksa mosque. This was the first instance where Yasser Arafat had ordered his forces to use the weapons that Israel had entrusted them with as part of the Oslo agreement.
This pattern would be repeated in the Al-Aksa intifada where the blood libel that Al-Aksa was endangered was recycled to enlist fanaticism against the Jewish state and the Jews, and allow Arafat to boast that thousands of martyrs were on their way to Jerusalem. In any case, the critics were less incensed by Arafat’s perfidy and more intent on holding Netanyahu’s feet to the fire by claiming that by his irresponsible action he had caused the bloodshed.
In 1996, although equally unjustified, this criticism put Netanyahu on the back foot and he never really recovered. Had Netanyahu remained firm and kept the metal detectors in place he could have savored sweet political revenge against his political opponents. The opposition had committed a major tactical error by failing to realize that the political reality in Israel was light years away from 1996.
Netanyahu of 2017 was not a prime minister with a legitimacy problem as he was in 1996, when he was warding off slanders by the Left that he had secured his premiership by murdering Yizhak Rabin. Twenty years later it is the Israeli Left, not Netanyahu, that thirsts for legitimacy.
The Israeli public today is under no illusion that we were in touching distance of peace and only Netanyahu was preventing us from breaking the tape.
Although the tunnels are now a major tourist draw, few people in Israel back in 1996 were aware of their importance and it was therefore easier to make the case that their opening was not worth the ensuing bloodshed. In the current crisis, the rationale for installing the metal detectors was transparent and convincing – the Al-Aksa Mosque had acted as an arms-storage depot for the murderers of two Israeli policemen. This understanding was reflected in polls taken after Netanyahu’s zig zag and the cabinet decision to remove the metal detectors. They showed that the public still overwhelmingly approved the original decision to install the metal detectors.
IN 1996, Netanyahu was dealing with Bill Clinton, an American president who had tried his utmost to prevent Netanyahu’s election and the threat it posed to his legacy achievement as patron of the accord between Rabin and Arafat, now Netanyahu was dealing with a far more sympathetic administration. Even global opinion understood the reasons for installing the metal detectors. After all, as Prof. Walter Russel Mead pointed out they have become ubiquitous in the West due to Muslim terror. Netanyahu had all this going for him when he caved, thus demoralizing his base and energizing his detractors.
Granted, Israel would have faced difficult moments in keeping the metal detectors in place. I reject the idea of a link between the atrocity at Halamish and the metal detectors. Similar atrocities have occurred without the pretext of the metal detectors, including the murder of the policemen that occasioned the decision to install the detectors in the first place.
But assuming for argument’s sake that the Sabbath meal massacre and the metal detectors are related, the Israeli public and particularly people living in communities like Halamish wanted the detectors to stay and viewed the climb down as a humiliation.
The negative repercussions were felt immediately; for example, in the Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahem, where a 10,000-strong crowd gave the murderers of the policemen heroes’ funerals and elevated them to the status of holy martyrs. When the police in Jaffa gave chase to motorcyclists who had just open fire on a butcher store and killed one of the suspects, it immediately degenerated into violent demonstrations complete with shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” Instead of calming the atmosphere, Israel may have achieved the opposite. Our enemies have become emboldened and our best hope is that they may overreach themselves.
The surrender has more than local ramifications. If Netanyahu cannot face down thugs like Raed Salah and his Islamic movement, if he cannot contend with the wakf, who is going to take his threats towards Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps boss Qassem Soleimani seriously? The damage is not irretrievable, but it is necessary to recognize that damage was done to Israel’s credibility and it will have to take meaningful measures to restore it.