Right before Passover, there was a single set of talking points in Israel, from the prime minister on down: We will maintain freedom of religion, we will permit tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers to enter the Al Aqsa Mosque, and under no circumstances will we allow Jews to offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount.
On Friday, when clashes erupted on the Mount, the Palestinians were underwhelmed by those pledges. Police reported on riots, and on the other side anger and pressure grew when people saw the live footage. Every scene of a police officer striking a worshipper or a smoke grenade exploding threatened to ignite the fuse connected to the barrel of explosives.
The first to respond were members of the United Arab List and its chairman, MK Mansour Abbas, who said that from his perspective, harm to the Al Aqsa Mosque is a red line that must not be crossed, even at the cost of toppling the coalition. Abbas, who is now perceived as one of the government’s decision-makers, has been required in recent months to explain to his voters the government’s steps. Usually he emerges from this task unscathed, even if he has had to squirm and sounds unpersuaded himself, as happened with the Jewish National Fund’s tree plantings in the Negev.
At the end of the week, things were different. This time, it was Al Aqsa that was on the agenda, not another move by the interior minister who doesn’t take Abbas and his electorate into consideration. As a member of the opposition, MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the largely Arab Joint List, can stand at Damascus Gate and preach to Arab police officers. But Abbas, who holds the future of the coalition in his hands, must provide answers. He and his colleagues in the UAL leadership did not appear at the site themselves; Abbas stressed repeatedly that he was talking with everyone he could – from the prime minister to the public security minister to the Jerusalem district police commander, to calm things down. It seems easier for him to approach Naftali Bennett or Omer Bar-Lev than the tens of thousands of worshippers who had gathered in the mosque plaza.
Bloodshed would have forced Abbas to leave the coalition. As far as he is concerned, he will hold on until the last day and then his electorate will judge him at the ballot box over his actions in the practical, civil sphere, not what goes on at Al Aqsa.
Abbas’ fellow UAL lawmaker Mazen Ghanaim threatened to bolt the coalition if the security forces did not stop their actions in the mosque. This is not an empty threat but neither does it necessarily stem from Friday’s events. Ghanaim, who first came to the attention of Israelis as the manager of the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team and then as Sakhnin’s mayor, is perceived by his party as a stepson and feels like a strange bird in the Knesset. He has already announced that at the end of Ramadan he will decide whether to remain in the Knesset or run once again for mayor. Further clashes might push him toward the second possibility, or at least serve as a pretext if he chooses it.
Events in Jerusalem also reverberated in Gaza. Since early April, 18 Palestinians have been shot to death by Israel’s security forces; there have been 42 such deaths from the beginning of the year, dozens wounded and hundreds arrested. But these figures don’t preoccupy the factions in Gaza as much as Friday’s clashes. Hamas initiated a high-profile meeting with the faction heads in Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s office, and Hamas threatened a harsh response if sacrifices were offered on the Temple Mount, although Israel had made clear that such sacrifices would not occur. In his talks with Egyptian mediators and the UN envoy to the Middle East, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh also demanded that Israel cease its military actions in Jenin and throughout the West Bank, perhaps because of public criticism of Hamas’ restraint in the wake of the deaths over the past few days.
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The clashes have set everyone on edge, but what has actually occurred attests mainly to the desire to avoid a replay of Operation Guardian of the Walls last May. In Israeli Arab society, beyond condemnation and participation by dozens of people in a rally in Umm al-Fahm, no untoward incidents have been reported (except for a stabbing in Haifa, the circumstances of which are unclear). Hamas and Islamic Jihad have hardened their tone and called for “mass mobilization” in the West Bank, but have not launched rockets or incendiary balloons or brought large numbers of people to the border fence.
For now, it seems that calm has been restored, but one visit by far-right extremists could set things two steps back. Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid can point proudly to the Negev summit, lightning visits to countries in the region and mediation in the Ukraine war, but as long as circumstances in Jerusalem and the West Bank don’t change, the potential for eruption is still present.