Analysis

Netanyahu Was Forced to Backtrack Once Again – but This Time It Was His Own Fault

In trying to end the Temple Mount crisis, Netanyahu had to give in on the hard-line image he so likes to project

Israeli police officers at one of the entrances to the Temple Mount on Tuesday after the metal detectors were removed.
Oded Balilty/AP

The security cabinet made the right decision in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The agreement with Jordan lifted the siege on the Israeli Embassy in Amman and allowed the staff, including the security guard who shot and killed two Jordanians after being attacked, to return home. The cabinet also seized the opportunity to advance a solution to the unnecessary crisis over the Temple Mount by removing the metal detectors installed at the Mount’s entrances.

Some problems remain unresolved. Calming tempers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will depend on how convinced the Palestinians are that no change has been made to the status quo on the Mount. The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that controls the Mount, has said it won’t accept any alternative technological monitoring measures. And on Tuesday, rumors were already circulating, including on Al Jazeera television, that the cameras Israel wants to install at the entrances will show visitors naked – another possible reason for Palestinian opposition.

Israel now lacks ambassadors in both Arab countries with which it has peace agreements, since the ambassador in Cairo was evacuated a few months ago due to warnings that he was in danger. And the Jordanians may have trouble letting the ambassador return to Amman unless the Egyptians do the same.

The security guard’s return elicited a collective sigh of relief in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a video Tuesday morning of him talking with the guard and the ambassador, and welcoming them home.

That was just the start of an all-day media blitz.

After meeting with the embassy staff, Netanyahu visited an army division on the Golan Heights, along with the defense minister and senior army officers. His staff then made a video which they gave to television stations and posted on social media. It shows Netanyahu, with soldiers in the background, promising to be strong against Iran and Hezbollah. He was rather less successful against the Palestinians this week, though.

Neither his attempt to take a hard line up north, nor his effort to win public relations points by quickly resolving the Amman crisis, can paper over the fact that Israel backed itself into a corner on the Temple Mount. Therefore, it was forced to retreat quickly once complications erupted in Amman and agree to remove the metal detectors from the Mount.

Now, it’s becoming clear that the promised alternative to the metal detectors – smart cameras that will cost around 100 million shekels ($28 million) – will be some time in arriving. Meanwhile, the police will compensate by an increased presence around the Mount. And nothing is more flexible than a police deployment. Yesterday’s “absolutely essential” security measure has become today’s minor detail that can easily be dispensed with.

Trying to follow the logical contortions by Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and their supporters over the last 10 days can make a person dizzy. First they told us the metal detectors are essential for security. Then they said the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces were simply scaring us with empty threats that the metal detectors’ presence would spark terror attacks. Then, when the security services’ intelligence assessment proved accurate, they claimed this was a coincidence with no connection to the Temple Mount. Next, when they removed the metal detectors, they said this wasn’t due to any Jordanian demand. And now, they say a beefed-up police presence suffices to meet the Mount’s security needs.

Not for the first time, circumstances forced Netanyahu to fold and scrap the hard-line positions he prefers presenting to his domestic audience. It happened after the Mossad’s failed assassination attempt against Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan in 1997, and it happened in 2010 after Israel’s botched interception of a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, when Israel agreed to pay compensation to the slain passengers’ families.

But this time, the security services’ errors aren’t the main reason for the retreat. Granted, the police recommended installing metal detectors after the attack that killed two policemen on July 14. But ever since, Netanyahu and Erdan have been responsible for the escalation of the crisis by rejecting the advice of the IDF, the Shin Bet and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, all of which recommended removing the detectors before last Friday’s prayer services on the Mount. And Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, whom Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev called “delusional” for his position on the metal detectors, was the one sent to Jordan to resolve the stand-off over the guard.

Now, the restoration of quiet in the territories will depend mainly on Palestinian conduct. Violent outbreaks like those of the past week usually take some time to peter out. But some organizations are still trying to fan the flames over the Temple Mount, especially Hamas in Gaza and the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, both of which have spent years stoking fears that “Al-Aqsa is in danger.”

The rapid escalation of the Temple Mount crisis underscores not just the explosiveness of any change in the Mount’s status quo, but also the growing power of the religious element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Religion has always affected the conflict but, today, it’s playing a more central role than previously. 

Israel has contributed to this as well. Jews ascending the Mount and praying there, which was almost taboo among religious Zionists shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, now enjoys wide support in this community.

Right wing attack on Shin Bet head is worrying

Some Knesset members from Habayit Hayehudi apparently saw the crisis that followed the policemen’s murder as an opportunity to change the Mount’s status quo. This, no less than the dispute over technological alternatives to the metal detectors, explains why party ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked voted against removing the detectors in the security cabinet.

The Temple Mount crisis, not for the first time, put Netanyahu into serious conflict with the defense establishment. In this situation, the left has a natural tendency to embrace senior IDF and Shin Bet officers and try to turn them, sometimes against their will, into symbols of political opposition to the government. This also reportedly happened during an argument over whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

But this tendency oversimplifies a substantive disagreement. Argaman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot give their professional judgment. In many cases, it won’t match the left’s expectations.

At the same time, the right increasingly scorns the defense professionals’ assessments and casts doubt on their motives. The defense establishment’s work requires close supervision by the government and constant skepticism by the media. But systematic assaults on senior defense officials – Argaman this week, and before him Eisenkot and his former deputy, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan – represent a worrying trend on the right.