Netanyahu's Shrewd Political Game Behind Jerusalem Violence

Jerusalem’s Old City is a tinderbox that could  set off a regional conflagration. This is a demonstrably true statement: when Ariel Sharon, then an opposition politician, stood surrounded by security guards on the steps in front of the Dome of the Rock in September 2000, and proclaimed that it would remain in Israeli hands forever, the consequence of his populist blustering was the Second Intifada.

What followed were more than two years of horrific violence, with the Israeli army re-invading parts of the West Bank, its tanks rolling into Ramallah and Nablus, even as Palestinian suicide bombers detonated themselves in the cafes of Israel’s major cities. But for Ariel Sharon the man, the violence he released was a boon to his career. He was elected prime minister on the back of his promise to make Israel safe again, and he remained in office until 2005, when he was felled by a debilitating stroke.

Similarly, the current unrest in Jerusalem is the consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to remain in office.  The prime minister is under police investigation for corruption. Several prominent Israeli analysts have suggested that he is trying to distract the public with a national security crisis.

Netanyahu also has to worry about the far-right flank of his governing coalition, which had been baiting him with accusations that his response to the killing of two Israeli police officers at al-Aqsa on July 14 had been insufficient. The metal detectors were, officially, a response to that incident. Naftali Bennett, the head of the far right Jewish Home party, has been particularly vociferous in implying that Netanyahu needed to show the Palestinians who was boss.

After a decade of Netanyahu governments, the Israeli discourse has shifted noticeably to the populist right. Now the prime minister must contend with what he has created: in a country where describing oneself as a “rightist” is a matter of pride, he cannot afford to have Bennett, who aspires to be prime minister, appear tougher than he is on “the Arabs.”

There is significance in Netanyahu’s failure to put the matter of the metal detectors before his cabinet, and ignoring the repeated warnings of the heads of all Israel’s intelligence services—if you mess with the status quo on the Temple Mount, you can guarantee a diplomatic fallout and extensive political violence. And that is precisely what happened.

Religious Jewish nationalists want free access to pray on the Temple Mount, which the Hebrew Bible identifies as the site of the ancient temple. According to a 1967 agreement between Israel and Jordan, Jews may not pray on the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif as Muslims know it) because this would imply that Israel shares sovereignty with the waqf, or Islamic religious trust, that has had authority over the compound since 1948. 

Most Jews are satisfied to pray at the kotel on the western edge of the compound, which they believe is a surviving segment of the retaining wall that formed the perimeter of the ancient temple. Some rabbis even forbid Jews to walk in al-Aqsa compound as they risk inadvertently treading on the part of the ancient temple known as the holy of holies. But a more radical element called the Temple Mount Faithful aspires to destroy the mosques in Haram al-Sharif and build the Third Temple.

For secular far-right Israeli nationalists, the Temple Mount is a different kind of symbol. They know it carries enormous meaning for Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Haram al-Sharif is a safe space for Palestinians to gather, while the iconic golden Dome of the Rock is the symbol of Palestine, seen in framed images on the walls of every Palestinian political figure’s office and in many Palestinian homes. This is why Miri Regev, the minister of culture, wore a skirt to Cannes that was imprinted with an image of Jerusalem dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock. Her message was: this is ours; it belongs to the Jews. Like the rest of her far-right colleagues in the Netanyahu government, she wants Israel to control the compound as a means of demonstrating dominance over the Palestinians. It irks them to no end that the city, which Israel claims as the eternally united capital of the Jewish state, is comprised of a population that is 40 percent Palestinian.

The immediate catalyst for the ongoing unrest in the city was the July 14 killing of two Israeli police officers, which involved three Palestinian citizens of Israel who used weapons they had smuggled into al-Aqsa. Hence, said the Jerusalem police, the need for metal detectors. Benjamin Netanyahu, the pragmatist, surely knew the new security measure was a bad idea. But he was caught between his desire to remain in power and his understanding that the protests against the metal detectors could lead to another war.

Palestinians saw the metal detectors as an Israeli attempt to assert control over sovereign Muslim and Palestinian territory, and so they gathered on the streets to protest. Israeli paramilitary forces responded with tear gas, foam-covered steel bullets, percussion grenades, beatings and the very real threat of detention without charge. As the demonstrations in Jerusalem spread and grew, the Arab and Muslim world remonstrated: Israel, said the Arab League, was “playing with fire.”

For Muslims, the compound is the place where the Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven. Since the 1967 war, Israel has honored its agreement with Jordan not necessarily out of respect for Islam or for the rights of Muslims, but because it knows that any change in the status quo could cause a conflagration that one former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, refers to in Dror Moreh’s documentary film The Gatekeepers, as a potential third world war.

To put it simply, the issue is not about whether or not there should be metal detectors at the entrance to al-Aqsa compound. Rather, it is about who controls those metal detectors. With Israeli security forces in charge, the result is simply another Israeli checkpoint. It means that Israelis will decide who enters al-Aqsa, and not the waqf. For Palestinians, this is a red line.

After a week of protests characterized by some remarkable Palestinian grassroots nonviolent mobilization, and covered extensively by the international media, Netanyahu backed down. The police commander ordered the metal detectors removed, while the Israeli authorities discuss installing in their place enhanced security cameras with facial recognition technology. Palestinians say this, too, is unacceptable. At first they continued protesting and refused to enter al-Aqsa compound, but ultimately they decided to end their campaign. Palestinians are once again entering the Haram al-Sharif, although Israel threatened to restrict access to women and to men older than fifty.

Now there are three narratives about the events of the past two weeks. There is the version that characterizes this as a Palestinian victory won with impressively organized non-violent action. Another version holds that Netanyahu’s having backed down is evidence that he is not the strong leader Israel needs in the face of Palestinian terrorism. And the third version, which one could call the Israeli mainstream view, holds that the prime minister behaved stupidly and rashly in an effort to save his own skin, thereby undermining Israel’s diplomatic relations with friendly Muslim countries and risking yet another round of military confrontation with the Palestinians.

Perhaps the most interesting development to watch is the sudden emergence of a grassroots Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem, where residents are both cut off from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and denied citizenship in Israel. Stateless and leaderless, for nearly two decades they have been directionless and dispirited. Perhaps now they are taking matters into their own hands. If they do continue their mass civil disobedience campaign, Netanyahu will have a serious problem on his hands. If he orders the military to put down an organized unarmed resistance movement characterized by mass public prayers, he will look just like the Arab authoritarian leaders to whom he claims Israel is superior.