Analysis

Between Political and Legal Fears, Any Sign of Leadership in Israel Is Absent

The Israel Police made the assessment that metal detectors were required at the Temple Mount to prevent further deadly attacks there, but it required someone senior to them to see the bigger picture

Illustration
Amos Biderman

If Israel’s ministers were to walk through the Temple Mount’s metal detectors, with the prime minister at their head, not the faintest beep would be heard. Certainly not from the steely resolve of decision-makers.

When members of the government think about the future, they think mainly about the next election. And in times of crisis, they also think about the commission of inquiry in the wake of the next failure. They don’t dare make difficult decisions, as is required of them. They look sideways and down, for volunteers to bear the responsibility. If there are no volunteers, they place responsibility on others – but that has a rubber-ball quality and tends to bounce back.

Everything starts by defining the problem and identifying the definer, because a specific problem can lead to a specific solution, when then generates a bigger problem, making the cure worse than the disease. For example, the small problem: Spectators run onto a soccer pitch in Europe or Israel, and attack the players and referee. The small solution: Strong fences between the stands and the pitch. The big problem: Dozens of spectators are crushed to death or seriously injured.

The Jerusalem District police acted as expected a week ago, in light of the immediate need for a response to a scenario that always appeared in books but not in reality: live fire on the Temple Mount. If the smuggling of weapons into the Mount must be prevented, bring on the metal detectors! Like at Ben-Gurion airport, but without the duty-free shops to comfort people who get there before the long lines form.

That’s the professional response to the problem.

Muslims praying in front of metal detectors outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 16, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Other professionals will say the metal detectors aren’t necessary and aren’t practical.

They’re not necessary because it’s no coincidence that, in 50 years of Israeli rule, the Palestinians (including residents of East Jerusalem) have not desecrated the holy site by firing a weapon (although Jordan’s King Abdullah I was assassinated there in 1951). It was young men from Israel, used to different behavior, who dared plan and carry out the attack on the Mount, in the hope of surviving and fleeing – there were no signs of suicide or self-sacrifice in their attack.

And they aren’t practical because in a serious check only three people go through the metal detector every two minutes, which means 30 through every metal detector in the 20 minutes between the call to prayer and the beginning of prayer, which means about 200 in all seven detectors – about 1 percent of the 20,000 people expected to crowd into the site.

Worshippers will be crushed, old people will die of heat stroke and heart attacks (that’s happened, and was kept quiet, in previous years), or the checkers will not be able to stand the pressure and will instead simply turn a blind eye.

One way or another, it’s a professional argument. But a police officer can’t be expected to think like a soldier or a statesman. A police officer maintains public order in his or her sector. It’s not for a police officer to enter other spheres or play at being prime minister, but in Jerusalem – Israeli territory even if by dint of unilateral annexation – the police decide. That is, the district – and more specifically, the David area.

That is not the purview of the army and the coordinator of government activities in the territories. The Shin Bet security service is responsible for intelligence in both Jerusalem and the West Bank, but it only consults. It will not be held responsible for a failure in operational preparedness. And the police have already become well versed in investigations – on the Temple Mount in 1990 (the Zamir Commission, after which the district was established and the minister of police was given a security secretary); the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 (the Shamgar Commission, an attempt by the army to deflect responsibility onto the police and the southern district of the Yehuda area, after which the Samaria and Judea District was established); and again on the Temple Mount and the Galilee and Wadi Ara in September-October of 2000 (the Or Commission, the minutes of whose discussions reflect the disputes between the agencies and the individuals).

And so Jerusalem District police chief Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy should not be saddled with the fate of the response in the West Bank to the response in Jerusalem to the murder of the two police officers on July 14. Halevy should have given his professional opinion on how best to reduce the risk of such an attack recurring, and how to prepare for the riots that were certain to break out last Friday. This is what he did, no more and no less.

And here is precisely where the national leadership should be functioning. If the definition of the problem has changed – as the army, Shin Bet and coordinator of government activities in the territories warned – then solutions to the new situation must be found, not only the situation that has been swallowed up by it. The usual method: an updated assessment. Another situation, another solution. There’s no shame in it, and better to be ashamed than pay in blood.

But between fear of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, essential for the moment another part of that same police force announces its recommendation to prosecute Netanyahu; and consideration of the commissions of inquiry that will crucify ministers who ignore the police recommendation if another attack occurs on the Temple Mount; and the masculinity that will be compromised if they have to back down from a previous position (“What will they say,” which never bothered Moshe Dayan, for example), leadership was absent and consistency was lost.

And so, retired police commander Maj. Gen. Nisso Shaham sat in his house on a Jerusalem hill and could not contain himself. Shaham, as a relatively low-ranking officer in the Jerusalem police, was prominent – and almost alone – in warning about Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. The Shin Bet pooh-poohed it; among others, albeit not the most senior officer in the chain of command, was, Roni Alsheich, now police commissioner.

On Friday morning, Shaham warned against the illusion that the real test would be dispersing worshippers from the Temple Mount. “By evening there will be Israeli casualties,” he predicted sorrowfully. “It won’t be in Jerusalem, but somewhere on the ground.” He also shared his thoughts with an old acquaintance from joint actions between the Jerusalem District and the Israel Defense Forces’ Benjamin Brigade – then-brigade commander, now Central Command Chief Roni Numa.

Shaham also contributed his experiences to Numa. For example, as opposed to the propaganda, the leadership of the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] is moderate and not extreme. This, too: Trappings of respect are important – seek out your interlocutors, go to them, show them that you’re listening and show consideration. That will help reach a compromise and sell it to the restless street.

It sounds simple, but not enough people act this way. Numa helplessly agrees: He doesn’t contain the controlled explosion, he just bows his head to absorb the shock waves. That same night, when Shaham’s gloomy prophecy came true in the settlement of Halamish, Numa again put the Benjamin Brigade into operation, just like the days when Alsheich was brigade commander and now IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was in the division. Between one thing and another, the passing moment was lost: in the evening, after a day of demonstrations and before the murder in Halamish, to announce from a position of strength the removal of the metal detectors before trying out new means of cooperation with the Waqf.

Twenty years ago, when Netanyahu’s hasty decision over the Khaled Meshal assassination affair led to a crisis with Jordan, he recalled Israel’s ambassador to the European Union and NATO, Ephraim Halevy, to restore relations with King Hussein (Halevy’s interlocutor when the latter was head of the Mossad). The current crisis with the Jordanians and Palestinians begs for an emissary who knows their ways and is acceptable to them – someone like Shaham, who on Saturday mourned “the metal detector dead.”