Can a Biden and a Netanyahu comeback intersect in Jerusalem? - analysis

If Biden wants to make a gesture to the Palestinians, let him do so in Ramallah or Bethlehem, but not Jerusalem.

 US Vice President Joe Biden speaks as he delivers a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS/DEBBIE HILL/POOL)
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks as he delivers a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DEBBIE HILL/POOL)

Things in Jerusalem are getting out of control.

On Monday evening, during the funeral procession of Walid al-Sharif, a 21-year-old from east Jerusalem fatally injured in clashes on the Temple Mount last month, Salah a-din Road in the capital resembled Jenin, with blocks and heavy objects – such as air conditioners – thrown from rooftops onto Israeli forces.

On Friday, the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in Jenin, quickly deteriorated into bedlam, as police, with batons swinging, charged flag-waving mourners – some of whom had thrown objects at the police – leading pallbearers, at one point, to almost drop the casket.

Two weeks ago, a huge Hamas banner was hung on the Temple Mount on the last day of Ramadan. And there were sporadic violent clashes between the police and rioters on the Temple Mount and at the Damascus Gate throughout the month of the Ramadan.

“Jerusalem is Arab,” chanted rioters at Akleh’s funeral as they pulled down Israeli flags while walking to the cemetery where she was buried. And the recent events seem designed to prove that point: to erode Israel’s control over the city, to strike out at symbols of the state, and to show that the sovereignty Israel claims over the capital is in name only.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden, at the time serving as vice president, has dinner with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, during his visit to Israel in 2010.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) US PRESIDENT Joe Biden, at the time serving as vice president, has dinner with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, during his visit to Israel in 2010. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

If, as it feels, matters in Jerusalem are spinning out of control, then Hamas is one organization rubbing its hands in glee.

Setting a fire in Jerusalem, after all, is the group’s newest aim. Hamas is hesitant to fire rockets on Israel from Gaza now, for fear of a sharp Israeli reprisal that would set back all attempts to ease the plight of the Gazans under its control. So instead, it is keen on exporting the violence to Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, the IDF released figures indicating that the recent wave of terrorism is being fueled by incitement over al-Aqsa Mosque, with 25% of the social-media incitement coming from Hamas and 25% coming from Israel’s own Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement.

Hamas, the Islamic Movement (Northern Branch) and the Palestinian Authority are interested in actions that chip away at Israel’s control of the city. Video footage of Salah a-Din Road – where the Jerusalem District Court and the Justice Ministry are located – looking like a war zone serves that purpose.

Israeli security forces need to reassert control over the city – all parts of it. Despite what the chanters chant, Jerusalem is not Arab, although hundreds of thousands of Arabs live and work there. It is the capital of Israel. Israel is in control of the city and needs to assert that control.

Is it worth triggering a riot by trying to prevent Palestinians from waving a Palestinian flag near Jaffa Gate? Debatable. But when the flag being waved is that of Hamas, then it becomes a different story.

No self-respecting country can allow people to march through the streets of its capital waving the banner of an organization that incites the murder of its people. Several countries around the world, though not all of them, ban the Nazi flag within their borders. If Germany, France and Sweden can ban the Nazi banner, then Israel could certainly make a case for confiscating Hamas flags at processions.

Ironically, all this is happening at a time when US President Joe Biden – tentatively scheduled to arrive at the end of next month – is considering a visit to Makassed Hospital in east Jerusalem. Such a visit would be a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations in the city.

Israel could make the case to the Biden administration that with the city very much on edge, and the two sides involved in a tug of war over who’s the boss at the Temple Mount and other parts of the city, such a visit would be ill-timed.

If Biden wants to make a gesture to the Palestinians, let him do so in Ramallah or Bethlehem, but not Jerusalem. Israel’s leverage with the administration over this issue, however, is likely to be minimal.

Why? Because the administration will turn around and say that it wanted to reopen the US Consulate in east Jerusalem but was blocked by Israel. That move was meant to reassure the Palestinians that despite the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington recognizes that the Palestinians, too, have a claim to Jerusalem.

Israel, the administration will say, can’t block the consulate and then also object to Biden making a high-profile visit to a Palestinian institution in east Jerusalem.

But if that argument is unlikely to sway the administration, another one may: A demonstrative presidential visit at this time to a Palestinian institution in east Jerusalem could endanger this government and pave the way for the return of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud – something the Biden administration definitely does not want to see.

With Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government currently hanging by a thread, such a symbolic visit by Biden to Makassed Hospital would be presented by Netanyahu and the Likud as evidence that Bennett is allowing the US to divide Jerusalem.

If the government falls in the coming weeks, this slogan – Bennett divided Jerusalem – will surely be a Likud campaign call. This is a message that has proven to resonate with a good part of the voting public. In 1996, Netanyahu rode the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” to a victory over Shimon Peres in that year’s very close election.

It is for this reason that a tweet Tuesday by Yoni Ben-Menachem, the veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic reporter who is now a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, caught the eye.

Ben-Menachem quoted senior officials in the PA as saying that Bennett is under pressure and trying to postpone Biden’s visit.

“He is concerned that Biden’s visit in east Jerusalem will be interpreted as American recognition of east Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine and that will hurt him electorally,” Ben-Menachem tweeted.

It is unclear whether there is anything to this. What is clear, however, is that Bennett will be hurt electorally if it looks as if the country under his watch is losing control over what is going on in Jerusalem.