Burning Bridges

Israel should learn a lesson from Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 and take the resulting wild behavior into account when dealing with the Temple Mount dig.

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon, then Likud chairman, went up to the Temple Mount. The rationale was the supposed willingness of then prime minister, Ehud Barak, to give up the holy place. On a formal level, Sharon's visit to that sensitive site was entirely proper: He had Barak's permission, he limited his visit to the Mount plaza, Sharon announced the visit ahead of time and the Prime Minister's Office had informed the Palestinian leadership. Moreover, the visit expressed the principle that has prevailed on the Temple Mount since June 1967, that Jews have the right to be present there during official visiting hours.

In fact, this proper visit turned out to be the spark that ignited the Al-Aqsa intifada and the October 2000 disturbances in the Arab sector, which ended with 13 Arabs and one Jew dead, making a deep impression on both the majority and the minority in this country regarding their chances to live in peace. As a result of Sharon's move, relations with the Palestinians in the territories took a turn for the worse. Violence characterized the lives of both peoples, resulting to date in more than 1,000 dead and more than 7,500 wounded on the Israeli side, and among the Palestinians, more than 4,000 dead and more than 30,000 injured.

In retrospect, Sharon claimed that his visit had only been the pretext for the armed uprising Yasser Arafat had planned following the failure of the Camp David talks. Some Israeli intelligence groups contested Sharon's assessment. In any case, after September 28, 2000, Israel was a different country.

Five days ago, a "salvage dig" began next to the Mugrabi Gate in Jerusalem. Ostensibly, the formal circumstances completely justify the excavation: The work is being done outside of the Temple Mount compound; its purpose is to replace the temporary bridge leading to the Mount with a more stable and permanent one; it was reported ahead of time to the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust); it is the result of an organized decision made by the prime minister after consulting the relevant professionals; it exercises the sovereignty of the State of Israel over the Western Wall area; it does not impair the unwritten arrangement in place in the area since the Six-Day War. Moreover, the uproar the Muslim world is creating around the excavation seems like an intentional fanning of religious flames to serve the political struggle the Islamic Movement is waging in Israel against the state, and the general Arab interest in the conflict with Israel.

And still, a lesson should be learned from the disturbances of October 2000: Sometimes, behind a veil of propriety, a monster is lying in wait for the opportunity to free itself from its restraints to sow bereavement and destruction. It is the resulting wild behavior that must be taken into account in decision-making, not the formal justification that gives it the green light.

Ostensibly, the decision made by the authorities to begin work at the Mugrabi Gate last week was entirely justified. Ostensibly, Israel has persuasive reasons to reject the calculated campaign of incitement being waged by Sheikh Raed Salah, who contends that the excavations are part of a plot intended to bring down the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Ostensibly, Israel has no reason to flinch in the face of the mendacious propaganda campaign encompassing the entire Muslim world, which attributes to Israel the malicious intention of wanting to harm Islamic holy places.

But under the circumstances, as the events are taking shape, it is better to be smart than right. The first outbursts of protest and rage, limited so far, that occurred on the weekend in Israel's Muslim areas and around the world, are enough to signal to the prime minister that he should reconsider his position. Countries sometimes compromise with religious elements in debates involving ancient faiths and traditions. There is no justification in demonstrating Israeli backbone right next to the Temple Mount. What is more, some people in Israel challenge the official version the public is receiving regarding the need for the renovation plan, arousing suspicion as to the motives of those behind it.