Opinion

The Palestinians Won the 2017 Battle for Temple Mount. That’s Good for Israel

Palestinians - and many Israelis - regard their victory in Jerusalem as Israel's capitulation. This is why that's a rare win for peace, and for Israel

Palestinian Muslims wave a national flag and flash the victory sign in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif compound, or Temple Mount, in the old city of Jerusalem. July 27, 2017
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

My day job is as a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland; every fall I teach a large course entitled “Fundamental Questions of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.”  A few years ago I was lecturing about the 1973 Yom Kippur War and explained that, as I see it, the war was essentially as a draw, in which Egypt and Israel both lost and won.

After class, an Egyptian student came up to me and, very respectfully and politely, informed me that I was wrong, that Egypt unquestionably won that war.

I use that incident (which didn’t surprise me; I also know that many Israelis are equally convinced Israel won that war) as a template for understanding Israel’s retreat (or capitulation) with regard to the metal detectors it was installing at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in response to the brutal killing of two Israeli policemen. 

Israelis largely regarded it as an appropriate technical response to the incident and most were taken aback at the widespread fury among Palestinians and Muslims worldwide. They regarded the anger as purely political and even hypocritical (apparently mosques in Mecca and Medina already have metal detectors and security cameras).  Doubtless, last Friday’s announcement that they have been removed was seen by many as a humiliating defeat, a capitulation to threats and violence for which Israel will have to pay heavily.

On the contrary. It may be a humiliation for the Prime Minister, but it is a clear (if rare) victory for peace, which is a victory for Israel. 

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will follow it up with anything constructive. Rather, as we see in the ostentatiously public welcome for the security guard at the Israeli embassy in Jordan who killed an attacker and which deeply angered Jordan’s King Abdullah, Bibi feels he must make up ground "lost" to Israel’s foes and, also, at least as important, placate Israel’s right wing. Otherwise, Israel will be seen as "weak."

What this really shows (once again) is that Israelis have not yet absorbed the lesson of its two successful peace processes, with Egypt and Jordan, nor of its much longer list of unsuccessful ones. 

It is common wisdom that it was the perception of the Yom Kippur War as a victory by Anwar Sadat that allowed him the political leeway to make peace with Israel in 1977. Similarly, though much less dramatically and not at all surprisingly, Israel’s beginning the Oslo Process and recognizing the PLO in 1993 allowed Jordan’s King Hussein (although initially blindsided) to sign a peace treaty with Israel the next year.

Jordanian security forces near the Israeli embassy face protestors calling for the shutting down of the embassy, expelling the ambassador, and cancelling the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Amman, July 28, 2017
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP

Israel has always assumed that driving its adversaries faces into the dirt, i.e., humiliating them, is an essential part of convincing them they could not win, and that Israel is here to stay. 

This strategy has never worked; to the extent peace has been maintained it has been in spite of the humiliation rather than because of it. 

Currently, the two most important examples of this sort of thinking are the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the "Jewish state," and the pointless attempts to bypass the Palestinians and make peace with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, both of which would require Palestinians, in the first instance, and major Arab leaders in the second, to swallow humiliation, as they perceive it, that might seriously jeopardize their rule. They would be despised by their people, whether Israelis understand it or not.

This has everything to do with the recent situation on the Temple Mount.

Let’s assume for the moment that although the Shin Bet warned the government that metal detectors were a very bad idea, the actual decision-makers could genuinely not understand why they might create riots and potential jihad. 

It goes to show that after a hundred plus years of fighting, Israelis have still not learned to see things from the adversary’s point of view. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the incidents of the past three years should recognize that that would be seen as a deliberate statement of ownership by Israel, whether that was intentional or not.

However, the fact that the Palestinians won this one, for a change, is good in itself.

For Israel as well, which, at least since 1967, has had no need to prove itself anymore. It’s there – and by now many Arab leaders even appreciate it as a status quo power and a bulwark against Iran. But for that to be openly recognized, Palestinians need to retain some pride, along with the 22% minus of Palestine that is the most they would get in any future peace deal. There are no doubt Palestinians who will trumpet this as the first step in a successful war of liberation but that is empty rhetoric, not reality.

The fact is that if Israel’s leaders really want peace, as they proclaim, then they must allow Palestinians dignity instead of dishonor. That should be obvious. It is very hard to believe protestations of peaceful intent when accompanied by continual humiliation. Thus, this Israeli "defeat" is actually a victory that shouldn’t, but probably will, be squandered.

Paul Scham is Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. From 1996-2002 he coordinated joint Israeli-Palestinian research projects at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University.