Netanyahu must work with Jordan to solve Temple Mount conflict - opinion

Netanyahu should confirm previous understandings that all Wakf employees and expenditures must be vetted and authorized in coordination with Israel.

 THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II before their meeting at the Royal Palace in Amman, in 2014 (photo credit: JORDANIAN ROYAL PALACE/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II before their meeting at the Royal Palace in Amman, in 2014

If you have read or at least perused Binyamin Netanyahu’s autobiography referencing its index, you will discover a few references to the Temple Mount.

On page 405, Netanyahu registers his astonishment that Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas “the wildest concessions yet, including Palestinian control of the Temple Mount.” An earlier concession, that of Ehud Barak in January 2001, is mentioned on page 312 as being “willing to give the Palestinians a foothold on the Temple Mount.” On page 434, Netanyahu quotes himself telling then-Middle East envoy George Mitchell that the Temple Mount is “the holiest place for our people.”

Yet, there is something missing and that is any reference to Netanyahu’s own policy declarations regarding the status of the holy site as regards Jews and their justification.

What is Netanyahu's Temple Mount policy?

On November 13, 2014, then-prime minister Netanyahu met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and then-United States secretary of state John Kerry in Amman. According to Kerry, the US had agreed that it would not publicly lay out the steps agreed to by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians at the meeting.

Press reports, nevertheless, informed that firm commitments had been made to maintain the status quo at holy sites in Jerusalem. These stemmed from then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who told reporters the meeting had been a positive step for maintaining the status quo of the site.

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, Jerusalem. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, Jerusalem. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, Kerry said at an earlier press conference, referring to the Jordanians, “in their historic role as the custodians of the Haram al-Sharif”, that “we particularly talked about... the imperative, the absolute need to uphold the status quo regarding the administration of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and to take affirmative steps to prevent provocations and incitement.” He then stated that “Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to uphold the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and to implement these steps.”

To provide some background, two days earlier, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had issued a warning, saying “Keep the settlers and the extremists away from al-Aqsa and our holy places. We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated. Keep them away from us and we will stay away from them.” And two weeks earlier, an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on a prominent Temple Mount activist, Yehuda Glick.

Following that murder attempt, then-public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch announced he would work to install metal detectors at the entrances, along with new facial-recognition technology. He was adamant in his intention, declaring, “We’ll increase the supervision of people entering the compound, both Jews and Muslims.”

A year later, Kerry was in Amman, Jordan, again and on October 24, 2015, he spoke to the media. He expressed his hope that “we can finally put to rest some of the false assumptions, perceptions about the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount... stoking the tensions and fueling the violence.” He continued and detailed several points including that “Prime Minister Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to upholding the unchanged status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif... it is Muslims who pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and non-Muslims who visit”; that “Israel fully respects the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as reflected in their 1994 peace treaty, and the historic role of His Majesty King Abdullah II”; “Israel has no intention of dividing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”; and that “Israel welcomes increased coordination between Israeli authorities and the Jordanian Wakf, including to ensure that visitors and worshipers demonstrate restraint.”

THEN HE presumed that Israeli authorities and the Jordanian Wakf would meet soon in order to strengthen that security relationship. In fact, he was very pleased to announce that Netanyahu has “agreed to what I think is an excellent suggestion by Abdullah to provide 24-hour video coverage of all sites on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.”

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh was present at that briefing and made clear that “what we’ve seen in the last few weeks is another escalation in the Haram Sharif al-Aqsa Mosque compound. And let me just explain that when we say Al-Haram al-Sharif it is the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. People sometimes mistake the al-Aqsa Mosque for one building. It is a compound and is the 144,000 square meters that we are talking about.”

And indeed, that evening, the Netanyahu’s media adviser communicated all those points, word for word. It also included the pithy summation that “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” The agreement on surveillance cameras that would allow police to observe the development of potential violent activity was sabotaged by the Islamic Wakf officials beholding to the Palestinian Authority.

As late as April 20, 2016, AFP was reporting that Israel “still wants Temple Mount cameras after Jordan had reneged on the measure, which in all probability would have caught the truth of Jewish provocations on tape while revealing the nature of the Arab violence there. Jordan’s prime minister Abdullah Nsur had said at the time that a plan to install 55 cameras at the site was because “we respect the point of view of the Palestinians... we believe the project is no longer consensual but a potential source of conflict and have decided to end it.” he said. A month earlier, his government was still intent on setting up security cameras to monitor any Israeli violations.

As to the question of why did Netanyahu ignore all this in his book, the real issue is not his retelling of the past but rather what of the future?

In a recent report authored by Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, and published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he highlights Jordan’s less-than-peaceful behaviors towards Israel. He counts its refusal to sign the Abraham Accords and threatening to fully abrogate the peace deal it signed with Israel in 1994. In addition, he notes that days after the recent election results, “Jordan issued an unprovoked and blistering statement warning Israel not to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount, invoking its role as custodian of al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The Jordan Times reported on December 8 that its budget for the Jerusalem Islamic Wakf Council in 2023 will be 14 million Jordanian dinars (NIS 69 m.). It employs 900 people, of whom 66 are women. Moreover, a new endowment is planned. It is to be called the Al-Mustafa Endowment for the Seal of the Noble Qur’an. As the official Petra news agency informed on December 11, the endowment “affirms the historical and religious responsibility of King Abdullah II, the Custodian of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, in caring for and protecting the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, establishing the Arab identity of Jerusalem and its people, and strengthening their steadfastness on their land.”

On all this backdrop, Netanyahu has returned to the premiership with a coalition that on the issue of the Temple Mount is one of a pull-me-push-me character. On the one hand, the Otzma Yehudit faction is quite committed not only to a stronger Jewish and Israeli identity with the site but seeks to alter the status quo. Elements in the Religious Zionist Party follow this line as do many Likud MKs. On the other hand, the haredi factions, which comprise the United Torah Judaism faction, are on record as opposing any proactive Temple Mount moves or decisions in favor of permitting Jews increased entrance privileges. For them, it is the status quo that is sacrosanct. They stopped Menachem Begin 45 years ago and they will try to do the same with Netanyahu.

WHAT THEN is possible for Netanyahu to do in the matter? If I were a member of his policy team, I would suggest the first thing he does is convey a memorandum of clarification to Abdullah. Among the points he should make are: Jordan should immediately discontinue employing provocative terms such as “Jews/settlers stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque” and “they engaged in Talmudic religious rituals.”

He should remind Abdullah that the so-called “Jordan’s special and historic role as custodian of the site” stems from a March 11, 1924, Oath of Allegiance (Bay’ah) his great-great-grandfather obtained, whereas the Jewish historic role is over 3,000 years old.

He should point out Jordan’s obligations according to Article 9 of the 1994 Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty, specifically that each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance, and “the Parties will act together to promote interfaith relations... with the aim of working towards religious understanding... freedom of religious worship and tolerance” with the expectation that these be fulfilled within a short time.

Netanyahu should emphasize that the section of the 2013 Agreement between the Abdulla and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that reads “Al Masjid Al Aqsa with its 144 dunams, which include... attached areas over and beneath the ground and the Wakf properties tied-up to Al Masjid Al Aqsa, to its environs or to its pilgrims” is unacceptable to Israel.

He should confirm previous understandings that all Wakf employees and expenditures must be vetted and authorized in coordination with Israel.

Lastly, the concept of a status quo applies to all parties. Creating new mosques, such as at the Golden Gate and the Barclay Gate, minarets or instituting new customs and institutions must be a mutually agreed decision.

These steps should contribute to a rhetorical atmosphere in which Jews are no longer just tolerated, if at all, and surely not discriminated against. At the very least, Israel will be reordering and reconstructing a more balanced, fair and honest conversation regarding the Temple Mount, which is not only an Islamic but very much a Jewish holy site.

The writer is an analyst and opinion commentator on political, cultural and media issues.