Temple Mount status quo in High-Definition
By : Yossi Mekelberg
There is something surreal in the mere thought of high-definition modern technology calming down tensions over a centuries-long disputed religious site. Israeli consent to install round the clock cameras on Temple Mount, in order to verify that the status quo on the holy site is maintained, seems for the time being to prevent further escalation between Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. However, the impact on the streets of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, where attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers continue, is so far marginal. Evidently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs much creativity and innovation. Yet, it would be dangerously delusional to assume that twenty-four hour monitoring alone will provide a miracle remedy for the suspicion regarding Israeli intentions over the Al Aqsa compound, or the complexity of the conflict.
Events surrounding Temple Mount are symptomatic of the current state of affairs between Palestinians and Israelis. It is indicative of the complete distrust between the two, and the despair of finding a way out of the current political deadlock. The agreement to scrutinise Israeli activity on Temple Mount, followed last-ditch diplomatic efforts, led by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, to avert a full blown Palestinian uprising. Tragically, though typically, this crisis would have never taken place had Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government prevented right wing provocateurs, politicians and NGOs from attempting to pray on Temple Mount. He was also forced, due to the severity of the situation, to explicitly state that “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount”. In other words, accepting and publically articulating that praying on Temple Mount is exclusively for Muslims.
Events surrounding Temple Mount are symptomatic of the current state of affairs between Palestinians and Israelis
The long-established praying arrangements in which Jews worship in the Wailing Wall area and Muslims on Haram Al Sharif date back to Ottoman times, and were reinforced by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War. Jews who insist on praying on Temple Mount are a mix of religious-messianic-nationalist fanatics, who would like to spark a religious war. A report published by two Israeli NGOs, Ir Amim and Keshev, warned that 19 organizations challenge the current status quo in various ways on Temple Mount, even to the extent of planning the building of the third Jewish temple there, are legitimised by the Israeli government. They are allowed to register legally, some of them receive direct and indirect funds from the government, and most perilously, in the long run they are allowed to spread their ideology among youth in schools and youth movements. Paradoxically, as the report accentuates, while certain elements within the Israeli government support these movements, others, especially among the security services, are required to contain their subversive and at times illegal activities.
Extreme religious-nationalist elements
This represents an Israeli government controlled by extreme religious-nationalist elements and led by a prime minister whose main concern is to stay in power. There are indeed elements within the Palestinian society that are interested, for their own political and religious reasons, in overplaying Israeli intentions regarding the harming of the Al Aqsa mosque. However, the Israeli government’s behaviour increasingly provides them with ample ammunition. Only last week Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely declared that “my dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount,” calling also on the Israeli government to allow Jews to go up to the mount and pray there. She was rebuked by the prime minister, and consequently released a statement asserting that she was only expressing her personal opinion. Hotovely is a young and inexperienced member of government. Nevertheless, she should know better, and should keep her private opinions to herself or for behind closed doors. Airing such inflammatory opinions on the official Knesset’s TV channel, shows either naivety or a deliberate attempt to cause mischief. Netanyahu’s decision not to take any action beyond distancing himself from Hotovely’s remarks shows either political weakness or tacit agreement with her – maybe both. There are too many people within the current government, or in its close proximity, that share the view that the Zionist dream will only be complete when the third Jewish temple is built on Temple Mount. Incidentally, some of them were part of the dream decades ago, a dream that one day hundreds of thousands of Jews would live in the occupied West Bank. If these zealots are not contained and marginalised, their acts will only deepen an already existing religious rift that may lead to war and bloodshed.
To draw at least one positive from the recent events surrounding Temple Mount, there is a good chance that diplomacy prevailed before violence got completely out of hand. It is too early to conclusively say whether the agreement brokered by the U.S. has allayed Muslims’ fears over Israeli intentions to make changes to the status quo of the Muslim holy site. However, on the brink of what seemed to be a potential full-blown Palestinian uprising, the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leadership resorted to diplomacy, and turned to American mediation. It is tempting to believe that this might encourage the Obama administration to embark on one last push to restart serious peace negotiations over a two-state solution. Sadly, this does not seem a very likely scenario. President Obama and Secretary Kerry are battered and bruised by previous experiences of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As Obama enters the last year of his presidency, he is more likely to concentrate on leaving a legacy elsewhere, while simply trying to limit the damage where Israel and Palestine are concerned.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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