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Why I Let the Jerusalem Flag March Happen

Omer Bar-Lev
Omer Bar-Lev
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A Palestinian man waves his national flag as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day, outside Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday.
A Palestinian man waves his national flag as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day, outside Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday.Credit: Mahmoud Illean /AP
Omer Bar-Lev
Omer Bar-Lev

The Haaretz editorial on Sunday May 29, the day of the Flag March in Jerusalem, said I did not do “everything possible in order to prevent an avoidable regional conflagration.”

First, I am happy that my rational, considered, decision – to hold the march in its traditional format, along the route it has followed for over three decades – did not lead to “an avoidable regional conflagration,” and that the editorial’s apocalyptic prediction didn’t come true.

But the real question is whether the goal of approving the march was “to express Jewish supremacy in the Muslim Quarter in East Jerusalem,” as the editorial’s first sentence claimed, or whether it was to preserve and maintain a decades-old tradition, even if the people who have been upholding it in recent years don’t belong to my own political bloc.

A reminder, in case someone forgot: Last year, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government caved at the last moment and barred the march from its traditional route. Did that prevent an escalation? No! The results of that capitulation were rockets fired at Jerusalem and a new round of fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip – events that allowed Hamas to claim a direct, and very troubling, connection to Jerusalem.

Imagine what would have happened had we been deterred by Hamas’ threats again this year and capitulated to them. Hamas would have continued to gnaw away at Israeli sovereignty and allowed itself – in the belief that we would capitulate on this as well – to pose additional extortionate and dangerous demands.

I’d like to ask the many people who reject this argument the following: What should Israel have done if, following such a capitulation, Hamas had kept going and threatened, say, that if Bar-Lev Street (named for former IDF Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and located in the eastern part of the city) were not renamed for a Muslim military commander, a regional conflagration would ensue?

After all, there’s no end to appeasement. In my year as public security minister, I have learned that just as crime knows no boundaries, there are also no boundaries to extortion and threats by terrorist organizations – unless we set clear boundaries for them. Anyone who doesn’t address these problems when they first arise shouldn’t be surprised if, later on, it becomes much harder to deal with them, and sometimes even impossible.

Moreover, in an op-ed that same day in Haaretz in Hebrew (and the following day in English), Noa Landau termed me “the moderate Israeli with no choice.” But the truth is that I and many other Israelis do have a choice. It’s just that the options available these days unfortunately do not include the one that I, and most likely Landau as well, yearn for – two states for two peoples living side by side in peace, right now. The alternative that does exist is a terrible one – annexing the West Bank, whether officially or unofficially, continued massive building in the settlements and illegal outposts there, continued damage to Israel’s democracy and much more.

Moreover, “choosing between bad options,” which Landau quoted me as saying, is often necessitated by the reality. Should the police enter Al-Aqsa Mosque, remove hundreds of rioters and thereby allow tens of thousands of Muslims to pray without hindrance, or should they not enter the mosque, thereby leaving the hundreds of inciters inside and its doors barred to those tens of thousands of worshippers? That’s a choice between two bad options. The fact that reality is complex often forces a leader to choose between two bad options.

But in the case of the Flag March, the choice was much easier – to continue upholding a tradition of many years’ standing despite the low risk it entailed, and thereby not put our legitimacy to a test, or to undermine our legitimacy and gnaw away at our sovereignty even though past experience under Netanyahu shows that doing so is no guarantee of preventing “an avoidable regional conflagration,” but is in fact the opposite.

Omer Bar-Lev is Israel's public security minister.

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