Learning from history

Israel is taking a beating on the international stage.

Hebron protests 311 (photo credit: AP)
Hebron protests 311
(photo credit: AP)
Damage control has been top priority for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the wake of fallout from the government’s passage last week of a new National Heritage Sites plan that includes Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
He has been forced to make plain his contention that the move does nothing to change the status quo at the sites, when a smidgen more diplomatic acumen on Netanyahu’s part could have avoided the present crisis. But that does not expiate Palestinians’ violence.
The situation on the ground continues to look troubling. Although Hebron was quiet, clashes between police and Muslim youths spread yesterday from Al-Aksa Mosque Plaza on the Temple Mount to the Ras al-Amud neighborhood.
With Hamas calling for a third intifada, Israel has been taking a beating on the international stage as well: At the weekend, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the cabinet decision provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the negotiating table.
THE PRESENT imbroglio is somewhat similar, though by no means identical, to another incident in Netanyahu’s political past.
In September 1996, early in his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu announced to the world while in London that he had ordered the opening of a northern exit from the Western Wall Tunnel that emptied out to the Old City’s Arab Quarter.
There was no political significance to the move, it was made clear. The second exit was simply intended to ease access.
Nonetheless, the announcement was exploited to fuel a wave of violence, in which 14 Israelis and 56 Palestinians were killed. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning Israel for opening the tunnel.
In last week’s version, at a special cabinet meeting at Tel Hai, the prime minister presented a six-year, NIS 400 million program to revamp national heritage sites and archives. “The list of sites that is brought here is not final,” he announced. “I intend to include Rachel’s Tomb, which enjoys a donation of the Jewish Agency for NIS 20 million earmarked for refurbishing, and the Cave of the Patriarchs.”
In this neck of the woods, where pieces of land, and especially religious landmarks, are often drenched with meaning for two or more faiths, and where men of violence are eager to exploit any opportunity to foster hatred, even the semblance of a change in the religious status quo can trigger a cycle of conflict and confrontation.
Given his experiences as prime minister, Netanyahu is doubtless well aware of this powder keg potential. He knew that various groups, with ministerial support, wanted to include Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on the list. On the Wednesday before the Sunday vote, Danny Dayan, Chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, sent him a letter to this effect. Shas ministers, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkovitz (Habayit Hayehudi) and Likud coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin also contacted him.
Their demands could have been finessed. The Jewish people’s historic connection to the sites in question does not require cabinet approval in 2010 in order to be deemed legitimate. The list could have been left ambiguous. This would have allowed the government to invest in the upkeep of Rachel’s Tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs and other cultural and historical assets of the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria, without being placed under unhelpful new scrutiny.
A short-sighted capitulation, bringing no tangible benefit to Israel, instead now spells a counter-productive greater focus on the sites themselves, and has already brought a degree of violence.
STILL, IF Netanyahu made a tactical mistake, the immediate Palestinian resort to violence was deliberate and inexcusable.
Yesterday’s Jerusalem riots were presented as a purported response to a visiting group’s ostensibly provocative tour of the Mount, when in truth the clashes had been pre-planned.
The unsurprising return to such cynical tactics, in Hebron last weekand in Jerusalem yesterday, also indicates an absolute total lack ofappreciation for Israel’s attempts to ensure that Jews and Arabs – bothMuslim and Christian – enjoy rightful access to their respective placesof sanctity.
And, of course, it begs the question of whether a future Palestinianstate would even remotely replicate Israeli fastidiousness inprotecting the religious rights of all faiths to their holy sites.