Analysis

Netanyahu's Tough Lesson This Week: When It Rains in the Middle East, It Pours

As long as Israel controls the Temple Mount, the prime minister must think twice, thrice, a hundred times, before making a move in the face of that powder keg

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.
Balazs Mohai/AP

The political and security crisis of the past 10 days, which began with escalation around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and continued with a serious incident at the Israeli Embassy in Jordan, was a kind of fast-forward rerun of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two great traumas in his first term: the riots over the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in September 1996 and the assassination attempt on senior Hamas official Khaled Meshal in Amman a year later.

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As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Those two crises in the 1990s seriously compromised Israel’s national security, its international standing and Netanyahu’s image in Israeli public opinion. The two latest crises have the potential to do the same thing.

Netanyahu understood full well the volatility of the Temple Mount a week ago, but was dragged into the crisis because of his fear of his political rivals on the right. Only the embassy shooting in Amman, and the fact that the Israeli security guard who was attacked became a potential hostage, led Netanyahu to realize that he was facing a “perfect storm,” that the road to total loss of control was very short and the time had come to end this.

Already at the cabinet meeting on Sunday night, when he spoke on the phone to Israeli Ambassador Einat Schlein in Amman and to the wounded security guard, and received intelligence reports, Netanyahu understood that every minute that the crisis continued only made it more difficult more costly to end. If it were up to him, he would have made “a deal” with Jordan's King Abdullah that night, but unfortunately Abdullah was at that moment flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles and could not be reached by phone.

On Monday morning, Netanyahu sent Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman to Amman to meet with his Jordanian counterpart and reach a quick solution. Two conclusions emerged from the talks with the Jordanians. The first was that senior figures in the kingdom want to see the metal detectors at the Temple Mount thrown on the ash heap of history. The second was that the Jordanians realized that the Israeli security guard was completely justified in shooting and killing his assailant, but they needed to be able to preserve their honor before sending him on his way. Even if the two crises were not clearly connected, “the deal” was obvious to all.

The strategic lesson from the events of recent days is quite basic. As long as Israel controls the Temple Mount, the leader of Israel’s government must think twice, thrice, a hundred times, before making a move in the face of that powder keg. The worst-case scenario is that hasty actions on the Temple Mount lead to a new intifada and thousands of death. In a less-worst-case scenario, such actions lead to a few days of violence and mutual bloodletting, to political damage and damage to Israel’s image and to an embarrassing zigzag for the premier and his cabinet ministers.

Today it’s clear that if Netanyahu and a few of his impetuous cabinet ministers had known how things would turn out, the metal detectors would never have been installed. They have learned in the past week not only that a miscalculation costs dearly, but also that in the Middle East troubles usually come in groups. The installation of the metal detectors as a tactical measure at the Temple Mount created escalation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and even spilled over to become a strategic crisis that threatened to severely damage the peace agreement with Jordan.

The security cabinet decided late on Monday night that the metal detectors will be removed. Netanyahu and his ministers, who fought like lions for them, will tell the public that a much better, “amazing,” technological solution has been found. If the situation on the ground calms down, this crisis will be quickly forgotten. Unfortunately, chances are that no one in the government will try to find a long-term strategic solution that will prevent the next crisis.