Immediately after the attack on the Temple Mount compound a week ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grasped that this incident bore the seeds of a greater conflagration. After all, he has the wisdom of experience behind him. Netanyahu remembers well what transpired during his first term following the opening of the Western Wall tunnels in 1996, what happened after Ariel Sharon entered the compound in 2000 and the events of the summer of 2015, after cabinet member Uri Ariel went there as well.
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Netanyahu responded with calculated caution, as well as uncharacteristically initiating a phone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in order to jointly prevent an escalation.
Given his responsible conduct in the first hours following the attack, it’s puzzling how 24 hours later he committed such a grave error in the rushed decision last Saturday to install metal detectors at all the entrances to the compound. After 24 hours in which he seemingly prevented an escalation, that decision reversed the trend and greatly exacerbated tensions, leading to the explosion which erupted over the weekend.
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The decision to install metal detectors was made during a 30-minute conference call Netanyahu convened just before he boarded his plane for a five-day visit to Budapest and Paris. On the line were Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Public Security Minister Erdan and senior members of the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet and the police. The issue of metal detectors was briefly mentioned but there was no serious discussion. If any of the participants thought this was a mistake, they didn’t say it. Everyone moved on.
Netanyahu’s mistake was not just in installing the detectors, but mainly in the decision-making process that preceded it. Even though he knows very well that the Temple Mount was the most volatile point in the Middle East, if not in the entire world, he elected that evening to deal with a complex, strategic topic based on tactical security considerations. All complexities were set aside, and the issue boiled down to metal detectors.
Netanyahu’s miscalculation in that discussion and in setting up those detectors put him in an impossible bind. When it turned out that this move was meeting stiff opposition, the government was left with no good solutions, stuck between a rock and a hard place. If it were to remove the detectors, this would be interpreted as weakness, showing it capitulating to threats and admitting that it does not truly have sovereignty over the Temple Mount. If it left the detectors in place, it could find itself sliding towards a violent eruption in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a crisis with the entire Muslim world.
Over the last week Netanyahu spoke publicly on several occasions, expressing his concern about an escalation around the Temple Mount or even about the dangers of a possible religious war. For several days he leaned toward removing the detectors, but at the cabinet meeting he ultimately voted for keeping them. The same process took place in the vote on expropriating private Palestinian land, the so-called Regularization Law. Netanyahu himself warned that this law would bring Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, even though he ultimately voted in favor.
In both cases the reason is the same – his worries about political rivals on his right. Netanyahu found himself in a government without a token leftist such as Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni or Moshe Ya’alon whom he could count on to block dangerous moves and then draw fire from the settlers’ lobby in the cabinet, the Knesset and the media.
With his own hands and through his own fears, Netanyahu has created a work environment in the cabinet — set up to ensure his political survival — that does not allow him to make judicious decisions on national security matters. Absurdly, the defense minister even voted against the recommendations of the defense establishment. Intellectually, Netanyahu knew what the right move was regarding the Temple Mount, but the decisions made were the exact opposite. In Sunday’s cabinet meeting Netanyahu could make amends. Let’s hope it’s not too late for that.