Analysis

Arab States Fear That a Palestinian Uprising Would Spark Another Arab Spring

Not every Muslim state is equal when it comes to the 'right' to protect what the Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visiting the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) during the holy month of Ramadan, June 18, 2016. Many Arab and Muslim states are claiming credit for the resolution of the crisis
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visiting Haram al-Sharif during the holy month of Ramadan, June 18, 2016. Many Arab and Muslim states are claiming credit for the resolution of the crisis. Ammar Awad / REUTERS

In a puzzling statement released Thursday, the Saudi royal court credited talks that King Salman held with some world leaders for creating “a turning point” that led to the Temple Mount being reopened to Muslim worshippers.

The statement does not reveal who the king or his son, Mohammed, contacted. It is likely, however, that there was a conversation with Israeli officials – if not directly, then through confidants of the crown prince who have known ties with the Israeli leadership.

The Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (as it is known to Muslims), may be a holy place, but the solution to the storm that raged around it for two weeks is political – and every one of the crisis’ “parents” is striving to get a share of the credit for solving it.

Seemingly, it was a power struggle over sovereignty and control between the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust at the site) and the Israeli government, a struggle centering on preserving the status quo – something that emerged from political, not religious, decisions.

Containing the crisis therefore focused on two axes: Preventing the crisis going global and having to call in the United Nations; and stopping it from overflowing to Muslim cities in Arab and Muslim countries. This would have resulted in the Arab regimes losing control of the crisis’ development and threatening the delicate relations between them and the public.

Mass protests – even those arising from religious sentiment – can swiftly develop into protests against internal policies, lack of freedom of expression, economic difficulties and lack of democracy.

The innovation in the current affair is that Israel wasn’t the only one fearing a Palestinian intifada. Many Arab leaders shared the alarm, because – as proven during the Arab Spring earlier this decade – uprisings are a dangerous, contagious disease and a Palestinian intifada is no longer merely a local reflection of a national struggle against the Israeli occupation. It could mobilize such massive solidarity that would put the Arab regimes in a violent confrontation with their people.

The Egyptian protest movement Kefaya was born in 2004, in order to fight Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the demand for reforms in Egypt. The Temple Mount’s potential for mobilizing the masses and the threat it poses are far greater, and not only because it concerns all Islamic states. This potential prevents the Muslim regimes from quashing any demonstrations it generates, because of the sacred halo resting over it, compelling them to appear as though they support the public demands against those who breach the site’s holiness.

But there’s no holiness without politics, and what appears as a universal Muslim site – one that requires every Muslim to protect it with all his might – is also built by the internal disputes among Arab and Muslim states. It’s reminiscent of the Jewish disagreement over the control of and prayers at the Western Wall.

Not every Muslim state is equal when it comes to the “right” to protect the Temple Mount. At one end there’s Iran, a Shi’ite Muslim state that sanctifies the Temple Mount and contributes militant statements against Israel’s turning it into a Jewish site. But the Sunni Arab states don’t see Iran as having a right to speak up on the issue. But even in Sunni Islamic states, Afghanistan or Malaysia don’t have the status of Egypt or Jordan, and Turkey or Qatar’s status isn’t the same as Saudi Arabia’s when it comes to the Temple Mount. This isn’t because they’re less Muslim or not Arab, but because the controversy is political and only the known “club members” are allowed to play in this particular arena.

The club has a strict hierarchy, too. For example, the sole representative of the Islamic holy sites in Palestine, according to the Arab League’s decision, is the PLO. But Yasser Arafat himself, who twisted the league’s arm to obtain exclusive representation, shared the responsibility with other Arab states when the Temple Mount’s future was under discussion.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is following Arafat’s footsteps in this regard. He might reject U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand, but not Saudi Arabia’s.

The right of Arab states to speak up on the Palestinian issue in general, and the Temple Mount in particular, depends mainly on their standing in the Middle East arena. For example, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, can curse Israel as much as he likes, call on the world’s Muslims to come to the Temple Mount to demonstrate their Muslim affiliation, accuse Israel of wanting to take over the holy site and undertake not to rest until the status quo is returned on the Temple Mount. But in practice, his weight and status in influencing the PA or the West Bank’s religious leaders, not to mention Israel, is next to nil.

Turkey’s contacts with Hamas, its siding with Qatar in the crisis with Saudi Arabia, its estrangement from Egypt, and its relations with Iran leave Erdogan with a microphone in his hand but no real political voice. Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia this week to preserve his relations with King Salman and offer to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but without much success.

A member of the Sunni coalition set up by King Salman, Turkey is already beginning to appear in Saudi Arabia as not such a friendly state. Erdogan recently ramped up his rhetoric against Europe, specifically Germany, and a pro-government daily newspaper said this week that Angela Merkel’s Germany was worse than Hitler’s Germany in the scope of its hatred and oppression.

Erdogan is also continuing to confront Trump, although his ties with Russia are getting closer with a planned deal to purchase S-400 missiles generating a storm in NATO.

Turkey has an important strategic status, which Erdogan enjoys playing with, but in this particular game of squash, he is running into a solid Arab wall.

Egypt is taking a separatist stance, reflected not only in keeping its distance from the Temple Mount incident, but also in President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s efforts to stabilize the border with Gaza at the PA’s expense; his overwhelming support for Abbas’ bitter rival, Mohammed Dahlan; the agreements the Egyptian intelligence chiefs obtained with Hamas to open the Rafah border crossing and to set up a power plant financed by the United Arab Emirates – all these distanced the Egyptian president from being able to pressure or influence Abbas. Now, Sissi is more interested in the reconciliation process in Libya to safeguard Egypt’s western borders from a terror spillover.

It is no surprise, then, that Egypt’s streets remained silent during the Temple Mount furor and the Egyptian media dealt with other burning issues.

Sissi is holding coordination and briefing talks mainly with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israel. This is in contrast to former President Hosni Mubarak, who in similar events used to draw the parties to Cairo to dictate an Egyptian solution (not always successfully).

Jordanian King Abdullah II received a slap in the face from Netanyahu, who celebrated the Israeli security guard’s “release” from Amman, while the king squirmed to explain the events. Jordan is seen as the most sensitive powder keg regarding the Temple Mount – among other things because the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan enjoys not only legal status compared to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also has 16 of the 130 seats in parliament. But its symbolic representation doesn’t reflect the movement’s real power in the street, which is demonstrated by its ability to mobilize protesters and inflame emotions when matters concern relations with Israel in general, and the holy sites specifically.

Jordan, through the Waqf, is the recognized landlord of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and under the peace agreement with Israel it must be consulted on any issue concerning the status quo at the site. Its responsibility, therefore, isn’t restricted to preserving freedom of worship at Al-Aqsa. Jordan is seen as being accountable to the Muslim world, although the PA took the role of being the holy sites’ sole representative. So any irregular incident at the holy site could shake the king’s status both in his own kingdom and with regard to the other Muslim states.

The details of the agreement reached with Israel this week are not entirely clear. Jordan announced that no deal was made, and that the release of the security guard Ziv, who shot and killed two Jordanian citizens, stemmed from its commitment to international protocols concerning diplomatic staff. But Jordanian sources told Haaretz that “the speed with which the release took place, together with removing the metal detectors [at the Temple Mount entrances], indicate that a deal was made and is likely to consist of additional Israeli commitments that haven’t been published.”

If Israel made such commitments, they don’t necessarily concern the Temple Mount, but rather the military and intelligence cooperation between the two states – or perhaps the Israeli intercession with Trump to increase U.S. aid to Jordan.

One of the questions that still demands an answer is why, in contrast to Israeli defense officials’ estimates and predictions for more than two years, no full-scale intifada has erupted. On the face of it, all the ingredients that started the second intifada in 2000 are present in the current Temple Mount events. A breach at a holy site; a Jewish takeover of the site’s entrance arrangements; the absence of a peace process; Arab and international indifference; and an internal Palestinian struggle. But the built-in failure on leaning on an analogy as a tool to analyze and evaluate leadership and public behavior is in empowering the similar points and ignoring or suppressing the differences.

It is possible to list countless differences between the background, the circumstances and the Israeli-Palestinian political, military and political behavior in 2000 and July 2017. But it seems the fundamental difference is that the second intifada stemmed from the success of the first intifada, which led to the signing of the Oslo Accords.

The tragic results of the second intifada – from both the humanitarian and strategic perspectives – have been deeply engraved in the collective Palestinian memory. It’s hard to imagine what the expiry date of such trauma is. The civil war in Lebanon still serves as an effective shield against its renewed eruption. Perhaps in Palestine, too, the trauma is still effective – but it’s best not to put it to the test.