The Israeli Palestinian conflict is a mixture of tangible disputes, psychological hangovers and symbolism, all intertwined. No issue epitomizes this entanglement more than the delicate, some might argue fragile, coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. What seems to be an existing status quo in the city since 1967 can be easily disrupted by either insensitive acts or deliberate provocations.
This past week’s outrage was sparked in the Arab world when a private bill came before the Knesset calling for Israeli annexation of the Al-Aqsa compound, Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. The debate created a serious commotion in the Muslim world and particularly in Jordan, as it is the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
Shaky relations with Jordan
The Jordanian governance of the Al-Aqsa compound was recognized by Israel in her peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. Moreover, only a year ago the “Agreement to Jointly Defend Al Masjid Al Aqsa” was signed in Amman by King Abdullah II and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, confirming Jordan’s historic role as the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
Hence, it could only be expected that Jordan would lead the protestation. And indeed the Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour was quoted warning Israel that if it “wants to violate the peace treaty in this issue, the entire treaty, its articles, details and wording will be put on the table.”
To be sure, the debate in the Knesset was initiated by MK Moshe Feiglin, a hard-line member of the Likud Party, who thrives on this type of nationalist-religious provocation. In his chequered past he was convicted by the Israeli courts of sedition against the state of Israel.
His views are perceived dangerous internationally to an extent that the British government banned him from visiting the UK because his "… presence would not be conducive to the public good.” In the Knesset he leads a block, together with other hawkish MKs from the Likud and other parties, which is a combination of ultra-nationalistic and Jewish religious fundamentalism.
The debate in the Knesset, which was a private initiative, was aimed in part at embarrassing the Israeli prime minister who opposes this private bill. It was an unwelcome initiative for him at a very sensitive stage of the peace negotiations, and just before his visit to Washington.
It is tragic that Jerusalem has not become a symbol of peace and coexistence for all, especially for those who claim to share the same God. Ideally people should be allowed to worship anywhere and everywhere, as long as they do not interfere with other people’s freedom of worship and show mutual respect for each others beliefs. Sadly, the Middle East generally, and Jerusalem in particular, are far from this ideal.Yossi Mekelberg
Debate ensued after the presentation of the bill and opinions were divided. Quite a number of MKs voiced their opposition, if not disgust, at the change in legislation tabled by Feiglin, one which could only sow more hatred in the region. The proposal was not put forward with the belief that it would succeed in changing the Israeli legal statues on Temple Mount, but was aimed at creating controversy.
This after all would have meant violation of the peace treaty with Jordan, resulting no doubt in a crisis between the two or even severance of diplomatic relationships. The timing and topic of the bill suggests a deliberate attempt to derail the peace process which is already struggling to make progress.
This group of MKs is small in numbers but very vocal in expressing their opinions. Their politics are a dangerous concoction of ignorance regarding the impact of their actions on Israel’s position in the region, paired with deliberate apocalyptic defiance.
In their delusional world, a conflict with the Muslim world will eventually lead to the building of the third temple on Temple Mount. In its more extreme version there were sporadic attempts by Jewish terrorists to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which were thankfully averted by the Israeli security forces.
It is not that difficult to imagine what the consequences would have been for Israel and the region if such whacky plots had come into fruition. Some of the views expressed in the Knesset debate last week do not encourage violent acts against the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but at least inadvertently legitimize it.
An issue of sovereignty
One of the ironies in this debate is that most rabbinical authorities in the Jewish world prohibit Jewish people from even visiting Temple Mount, let alone praying there, for religious reasons.
However, for both Jews who want to pray there and the Muslim Waqf who would like to prevent them from doing so, it has been an issue of contested sovereignty. In Jerusalem, which is indeed the holiest place for Jewish people, the secular notion of sovereignty was hijacked by religious interests that are trying to make political gains.
The Wailing Wall is a place of Jewish pilgrimage and worship for centuries, similarly to that of the Haram Al Sharif for Muslims. Muslims are not asking for sovereignty over Al Buraq (the Wailing Wall), which is also holy for them. Sovereignty does not change the fact that the places are holy for both. Nonetheless, any unilateral change in the delicate status quo of the holy places in Jerusalem can only lead to conflict and violence.
It is tragic that Jerusalem has not become a symbol of peace and coexistence for all, especially for those who claim to share the same God. Ideally people should be allowed to worship anywhere and everywhere, as long as they do not interfere with other people’s freedom of worship and show mutual respect for each other’s beliefs. Sadly, the Middle East generally, and Jerusalem in particular, are far from this ideal. Furthermore, without a comprehensive peace agreement we might never get closer to its realization.
The provocative debate that took place in the Knesset about Israeli sovereignty over Temple Mount served as a stark reminder to the danger of letting the religious genie out of the bottle. It pushes even the moderates in the region into a corner in which they are compelled to condemn Israel and give those who question Israel’s right to exist plenty of political ammunition.
The immediate response in the Arab world was one of condemnation, not only in Jordan, but also in an emergency meeting of the Arab League and around the Muslim world. The Jordanian government response was actually mild compared to the reaction from other quarters of the country’s political and religious establishment. A majority of Jordan’s parliament members voted to expel the Israeli ambassador Daniel Nevo, and to recall their own envoy Ealid Obeidat back to Amman.
Furthermore, forty-seven members of the Jordanian lower house signed a motion to scrap the peace treaty with Israeli all together. None of these votes are binding and will probably not be implemented by the Jordanian government as in the region’s current political climate Jordan cannot afford a direct confrontation with Israel. However, it demonstrates the anger generated by any suggestion to alter the current arrangements of the Al-Aqsa compound.
The Middle East is presently enduring one of its most dangerous historical epochs. At this point nothing can be more dangerous than inflaming religious tensions. Religious fundamentalism, wherever its origins, flourishes where differences and conflicts are not resolved peacefully.
The frictions in the region are increasingly driven by scare mongering extremists, who exploit religious and nationalistic discords to enhance their own political power. Regrettably, by their sheer determination, they gradually impose their will on a moderate majority, who are too passive or unwilling to stand up to them. The Knesset debate about imposing Israeli sovereignty on Temple Mount might have created a mini tempest, but it should be a wakeup call for all moderates of the Middle East to unite.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.SHOW MORE