For a whole year there wasn’t one phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In July 2016, the death of Abbas’ brother prompted Netanyahu to pick up the phone and offer his condolences. On Friday, it was the attack at the holiest place in the world for Jews and the third holiest place for Muslims that led to another rare call.
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Netanyahu decided to get in touch after a phone consultation Friday morning with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Israel’s security chiefs. The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, was also on the line; it may be assumed that he made the recommendation to the prime minister.
Two years ago, in June 2015, Netanyahu made a very similar phone call to Abbas. That was after the arson attack by Jewish terrorists that killed members of the Dawabsheh family.
Although the perpetrators of these two attacks came from completely different backgrounds, the purpose of both phone calls – the one two years ago and the one Friday – was to prevent escalation. The difference is that while the murder of the Dawabsheh family had the potential to spark an intifada in the West Bank, the attack killing two Israeli policemen and the gun battle on the Temple Mount had the potential to set off a religious war in the Middle East.
Netanyahu and Abbas both acted very responsibly. They understood that the Temple Mount attack had great potential for danger and that extremists and crazies on both sides could use it to unleash unprecedented violence. The two leaders decided over the weekend to diverge from their usual habit; instead of clashing and avoiding dialogue, they cooperated to resolve the crisis and prevent the volcano from erupting.
Unlike previous instances, Netanyahu didn’t lash out publicly at Abbas and didn’t accuse him of incitement or responsibility for the attack. And the Palestinian president, unusually, condemned the attack and even issued an official statement of condemnation in Arabic. He also refrained from lambasting Israel publicly regarding the closure of the Temple Mount and pursued the matter through quiet diplomacy.
Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy for the peace process, was quick to praise Netanyahu and Abbas for their cooperation. Greenblatt is trying with all his might to find a formula that will allow a little confidence-building between the two leaders, which could perhaps later lead to a renewal of peace talks between the sides.
Greenblatt can try to build on Friday’s phone call. Maybe Netanyahu and Abbas can’t conduct negotiations on a permanent agreement right now, but they can show that when necessary they can work together on issues where their interests converge. There’s no need to wait another year or until the next serious attack to hold more phone calls or even meet face to face for the first time in seven years.
If Netanyahu and Abbas’ conduct regarding the Temple Mount attack can be seen as a small ray of light, condemnations of Israel from the Arab world, especially from Jordan, over Israel’s decision to close the Mount after the attack are a source of concern. Tension with Jordan over Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount in particular, is growing. Despite security cooperation between the two countries over Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the deep-seated dispute over the Palestinian issue breaks out repeatedly and casts a pall over the relationship.
Many Sunni Arab countries with which Netanyahu and Lieberman are constantly hinting at warming ties also condemned Israel over the weekend. This is yet more proof that, despite the fantasies of Israeli officials, the Arab countries have no intention of abandoning the Palestinian issue and independently promoting a normalization with Israel.