When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engages in boastful rhetoric about the meetings he holds with Arab leaders – including the recent revelation of a secret meeting five years ago with the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister – he seemingly ignores Islamic forces looking on at these diplomatic moves. The recent tensions over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount make it clear that any diplomatic or security move is also immediately gauged from a perspective that transcends the religious importance of the holy sites.
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The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, like the Kaaba in Mecca and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is an Islamic site that is inseparable from the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are sites that, when harmed, spark public outrage that can put the regimes in Arab and other Muslim states on a collision course with Islamic movements in their countries.
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It also puts them in conflict with a sensitive Muslim public that can delegitimize closer ties between Israel and Arab countries, and places them in conflict with a secular Arab public that views the events as a deliberate attempt by Israel to take over Palestinian sites.
The recognition of people power and the threat that Arab public opinion poses is one of the most important by-products of the Arab Spring, particularly when it concerns Israel and the holy sites. Such matters constitute a loose, but perhaps only, common denominator that these parts of public opinion share.
Up to now, the Arab and Muslim rage in these countries has not been translated into public displays in the form of mass demonstrations or harshly critical articles. Events on the Temple Mount over the past week or so have indeed garnered headlines in most of the Arab world, but at this point – for possibly the first time – we haven’t seen the customary anti-Israel protests on the streets of Cairo, Amman and Morocco.
As expected, Muslim Brotherhood websites have accused Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi of surrendering to Israel. One website spoke of the Egyptian president and “the Zionists” as a common force. In an interview with one Egyptian website, a member of the Popular Committee for the Defense of Sinai, Ahmed Samah al-Idarusi, lamented that compared to the past, “we now encounter Egyptian diplomatic and cultural silence such that even the elites are not capable of releasing a single joint statement of condemnation.”
Sissi himself called on Israel to act immediately to calm tensions regarding the Temple Mount. But his rhetoric was much milder than in September 2015, when he accused Israel of blatantly desecrating the sanctity of the site.
According to reports from Egypt, the country’s minister of religious endowments, Mukhtar Gumaa, had called on mosque preachers to refrain from commentating on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in their Friday sermons and to speak instead only about treating foreign tourists in Egypt well.
Saudi Arabia, whose king, Salman, did lobby the United States to pressure Israel to reopen the Temple Mount compound to Muslim worshippers, refrained from making statements on the matter – and the silence was not only on the part of senior Saudi officials. It was also impossible to find detailed news reports in Friday’s Saudi press on the sequence of events on the Temple Mount.
Only one media event went viral, and that was when a viewer of a program broadcast on the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hiwar television network called the station and declared, “I’m opposed to an Al-Aqsa victory, because an Al-Aqsa victory is a victory for Hamas and Qatar!”
It’s possible this viewer represents a new sentiment, taking the view that the current conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Hamas is what will determine the nature of the Arab response. From this point, as long as Qatar is considered a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and since the events on the Temple Mount have been attributed to Hamas, intra-Arab disagreements will play an important role in Arab policy.
But even though such sentiment cannot be ignored, it doesn’t mean it will be within these states’ power to put a halt to public Muslim outbursts that will force Arab regimes to join ranks in the battle for this holy site if violent clashes continue there.
Israel, which is exchanging messages with Saudi Arabia and is carrying out hurried consultations with Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Sissi, is now looking for a two-edged solution: addressing security at the Temple Mount and managing its loss of prestige. It would expect to obtain such a solution if it decides to remove the metal detectors that were installed after the July 14 attack at the Temple Mount that killed two Israeli policemen.
According to Jordanian sources, the solutions that have been discussed up to now have not produced agreement. One suggestion was that the metal detectors be operated by Jordanian police in civilian dress; another was that the current walk-through detectors be replaced by handheld devices; or that operation of the metal detectors be operated by a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian police force.
The problem is that each of these suggestions damages the standing of Israel, which is demanding total sovereignty when it comes to the entrances to the Mount, or to the stance of the Palestinians, who at the moment are rejecting any Israeli security involvement over the Temple Mount and the entrances to it.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that the PA is cutting off contact with Israel may not be helpful, but it doesn’t prevent an exchange of messages with Palestinian security officials in the context of security cooperation, or an exchange of ideas among Israel, the Palestinians and the Jordanians.
On Saturday, a senior Jordanian official told Haaretz that King Abdullah understands the need for security checks, but added: “When the issue is perceived as a fight over prestige between Israel and the Palestinians, and no less [importantly] as an internal political fight within the Israeli government, the king cannot ask the Palestinians to give in for the sake of the stability of the Israeli government.”
These comments contain a hint of a Jordanian expectation of a gesture on Israel’s part that will give the Jordanian monarch ammunition that will convince Abbas to agree to new security arrangements on the Temple Mount. It is possible Netanyahu received similar messages from the Egyptian president.
Now, the decisive question is the extent to which the Israeli prime minister can agree to strip the metal detectors of the symbolism which they have taken on and consent to proposals that will also be acceptable to the Arab leaders. In the process, it would also buttress the foundation of relations with them.