Analysis |

Israel Can Solve Jordan and Temple Mount Crises With One Simple Act

Arab nations have never been more amenable to talking with Israel, but they need a responsive partner in Jerusalem

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinians praying in front of Israeli policemen and newly installed metal detectors at an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, July 16, 2017.
Palestinians praying in front of Israeli policemen and newly installed metal detectors at an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, July 16, 2017.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Update: Israel-Jordan Embassy Crisis Ends: Diplomats Evacuated, Cross Border Into Israel

It does not matter if the shooting in the building belonging to the Israeli Embassy in Jordan stemmed from a dispute about the amount of payment for the furniture, as a few witnesses have said, or from an attempt to attack one of the Israeli security guards based on a religious-nationalistic motive.

This incident has been perceived in Jordan, and not only there, as the direct result of the confrontations on the Temple Mount.

In the old world, the one in which Israel managed to rescue the Israeli operatives who tried to poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman 20 years ago in return for the release of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and 70 other Palestinian prisoners, it could be expected that the Israeli guard who shot and killed two Jordanian citizens would be released in return for removing the metal detectors from the entrances to the Temple Mount – and put an end to the two affairs at the same time with just a wave of the hand.

In the new world, the chances for such a deal are even better. But it requires new conditions, too – ones that did not exist in 1997. Even though tensions are rising between the two countries, the relations between Israel and Jordan are beyond good, and include cooperation on quite a number of levels.

Earlier this year, the Arab League again ratified the Arab Peace Initiative and twice this week it deferred an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled to discuss events on the Temple Mount.

The reason for the postponement is that a number of Arab leaders told Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit that Israel and Arab nations are holding intensive negotiations to resolve the problem, and convening the summit could hurt the chances of successful negotiations with Israel.

A reality in which Arab and Muslim leaders are holding diplomatic discussions with Israel to defang a threat lying not only at Israel’s door but at theirs too is a window of opportunity for other steps, too. But a precondition for this opportunity is somebody in Jerusalem being prepared to listen, and substitute the sanctity of the metal detectors and sovereign prestige at the Temple Mount with a realistic policy.

Zakaria al-Jawadah, center, the father of Mohammed Mohammed al-Jawawdeh, a 17-year-old Jordanian who was killed Sunday evening by an Israeli security guard who said he was attacked with a screwdriver,Credit: Raad Adayleh/AP

The innovation in the “new world” is that, since the Arab Spring, people in Arab nations have far more power to pose a threat. The need to consider the people has become integral to Arab nations’ policies, whether they experienced a revolution or not.

The Egyptian public, for example, was responsible earlier this year for torpedoing agreements to transfer the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia the need to assuage public discontent against the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the new crown prince was reflected by wage increases. And in Jordan, King Abdullah II is constantly seeking ways to lower the unemployment rate, which climbed above 18 percent in the first quarter of the year.

The traditional common denominator – namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – has dropped down the list of things Arab public opinion cares most about, being replaced by the Syrian civil war, the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and constraining Iran’s influence. Egypt is operating independently against Hamas in Gaza through Mohammed Dahlan; Jordan is handling itself as events arise with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; and the Arab League settles for its annual contribution to the conflict by making routine resolutions at the Arab League summit.

And then comes the recent upheaval at the Temple Mount, injecting steroids into the veins of Arab sentiment. Seemingly, the outrage is religious, following Jewish meddling at a site sacred to Muslims. But in practice, what happened was a political, nationalist incident garbed in religion.

In essence, the battle over controlling the Temple Mount (which Muslims refer to as Haram al-Sharif) is about sovereignty, not faith. But it would be a mistake to differentiate between national Palestinian identity, the general Arab identity and religious identity, which feed one another.

In Israel, too, the national identity is garbed in a religious identity.

The problem is that Haram al-Sharif is not a local Palestinian site. It “belongs” to all Muslim believers and, by virtue of that, attracts a lot of political hitchhikers.

Its religious character transcends national identities, which means resolving the Temple Mount issue isn’t only the exclusive preserve of the Arabs.

Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, claim “ownership” of the Mount just as much as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan or the Palestinians do. Each sees itself as qualified to handle the crisis, and threatens catastrophe if it isn’t resolved. Each has a large population that may not care about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis per se, but will take to the streets to demonstrate a national-religious identification with the sacred site.

This is a space in which the Muslim public has freedom of expression, even in authoritarian states – a freedom that can even threaten the stability of regimes.

So when Israel negotiates with Jordan, Egypt and, indirectly, Saudi Arabia about resolving the problem of the metal detectors on the Temple Mount, it is really negotiating indirectly with all Islamic states. It is becoming a partner in the constant struggle between the Arab and non-Arab nations; between Iran and Saudi Arabia; and between the radical organizations and religious institutions.

The Arab nations – the ones Israel describes as “modern” and “pro-Western,” the ones that appear in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreams of regional peace – demand, or more accurately need, Israel to remove those metal detectors from the Mount.

This is the time for Netanyahu to demonstrate, like during the Meshal crisis in 1997, his ability to grasp the magnitude of the crisis and its toxicity. The role of the metal detectors has become inflated far beyond their original designation. They have become a political lever with the potential to release Israeli prisoners in Jordan and, mainly, a manifesto on which Israeli-Arab negotiations are being pursued.

There are Arab partners aplenty for that. Now all that’s needed is one Israeli partner.

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