The atmosphere has grown increasingly tense as every day the death toll in the Temple Mount crisis grows. Israel has the power to stop it and must return to reason, argues Tim Assmann.
At first, reason appeared to win out. Shortly after terrorists shot two policemen and sparked a bloody showdown on the Temple Mount, Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to clarify that the status quo at the holy site would not change. The Israeli prime minister was obviously trying not to add fuel to the fire. He understood immediately that the attack, and the decision to ban Friday’s prayer service for security reasons, had the potential to start a conflagration.
A politically and religiously charged place
Because the hill, located in the Old City of Jerusalem and known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is politically and religiously charged like no other place in the world, Netanyahu made sure to emphasize that only Muslims could pray on the mount and that an Islamic foundation will continue to manage the area with its two mosques. Before emphasizing the so-called status quo, a series of arrangements that give Muslims considerable administrative autonomy over the compound, Netanyahu had already received demands from his government coalition to revise the regulations in response to the deaths of the policemen. Netanyahu resisted the pressure, however. He even made one of his very rare telephone calls to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was also trying to prevent an escalation.
Reason therefore prevailed in these moments. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long: Netanyahu made a disastrous mistake when he agreed to install metal detectors at the entrances of the Temple Mount. That Muslims would see this as degrading, as unacceptable interference and as an attack on the status quo was foreseeable. There was already suspicion that Israel was using the attack as a pretext for changing the conditions on the mount - and therefore slowly altering the status quo.
Israeli politicians have long made demands for Jewish prayer to be allowed on the Temple Mount as well. Netanyahu was well aware of these tensions, and yet he decided to install the metal detectors anyway. It was a mistake. What was supposed to bring more security instead brought more violence and put the Israeli prime minister in a quandary: While taking out the metal detectors would make him seem weak in front of the hardliners, keeping them would continue to turn the Muslim world against Israel.
Pressure on both sides
Netanyahu ducked away for days, hoping apparently that the situation would settle down by the time he returned from his foreign trip. Naturally, that didn’t happen. The pressure has risen - including for Abbas, who has temporarily put his relationship with Israel on ice as long as metal detectors continue to be used. So now, in what is typical for a Middle East conflict, the situation has become about saving face.
And tensions are continuing to escalate. The murder of three Israelis by a young Palestinian has led Israel to tighten security measures, and a faction of the government is calling on Netanyahu for an even tougher response. If he caves to that pressure, however, the crisis will only intensify. Instead, Israel should remove the metal detectors and not replace them with other measures. Such an action by Netanyahu would be interpreted as weakness by his critics. But above all it would be something else: a return to reason.