Analysis by Jotam Confino.
As thousands of Palestinian worshippers wander to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Friday’s prayer, Israel once again finds itself in a situation that can escalate any minute. If it does, a regional crisis may erupt, due to the sensitive issue at stake.
If there is one thing that the Muslim states can agree on, it’s that the status quo at the Temple Mount is indisputable. Since the lock down of the Temple mount last week, Israeli authorities have installed metal detectors, which according to the Waqf (Muslim authority of the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount) violates a mutually agreed upon status quo of the holy site. The Temple Mount has been at the center of violent clashes between Palestinians and Israel numerous times, and in 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount triggered the ‘al-Aqsa Intifada’ which lasted for years.
Although Palestinian demonstrations so far have been relatively peaceful, Thursday’s demonstration quickly escalated when stones where thrown at the Israeli Police forces. In the narrow streets of the old city in Jerusalem, things can get out of control very easily with frustration, anger, heat and missteps. So far, the Israeli cabinet has decided to keep the metal detectors at the entrance to the holy site, but it will be used selectively. Getting the situation under control and avoiding a possible Intifada is first priority for both Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states.
Protesters in Turkey reportedly threw stones at a Synagogue in Istanbul, as a response to the Temple Mount crisis, which is why Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, made a phone call to Erdogan in Turkey, in an attempt to do some damage control. The Saudi King has also conveyed his message to Israel, supposedly through Washington, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, access to the al-Aqsa mosque is of great importance to the King.
The Israeli Cabinet’s decision to install the metal detectors goes against the advice from Shin Bet, which clearly stated that such measures would give the Palestinians a reason to react violently. It seems as if Netanyahu is trying to show the Palestinians and the Israelis of course, that using the al-Aqsa as a place to store weapons is unacceptable, especially after two Israeli police officers were killed. The rationale behind that decision is quite clear, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Temple Mount is holiest site for the Palestinians, which Netanyahu and the Cabinet is fully aware of.
The last thing Israel needs right now is an Intifada, especially a religiously triggered Intifada that will likely cause severe damage to Israel’s relations to Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Israel’s increasing isolation in the region became evident when the US and Russia announced a cease-fire deal in Syria. Trump surprised the world the deal, while the right wing government in Israel found itself dissapointed with their ‘Messiah’ once again. This time his decision-making revealed that the US is willing to let Russia call the shots in the Middle East from now on. According to the Syrian cease-fire deal, Russian troops will guard the southern part of Syria, which Netanyahu quickly called a very “bad deal”, using Trump’s rhetoric to underline his displeasure with the US President.
Although Trump’s ‘Syria policy’, (if there is one) has been to fight ISIS and then withdraw, it still comes a surprise to Netanyahu, who has expressed deep concern over the presence of Hezbollah and Iran’s Shiite militias in Syria.
Trump has chosen to ignore that concern, in what can only be seen as a way of getting positive press coverage, and showing the international community that he is the best ‘deal breaker’ there is. What he doesn’t seem to care too much about, is that Syria is now practically Russian territory, in which it is responsible for securing the border to Israel and Jordan.
Israel is understandably worried about Hezbollah’s growing strength, and lately the IDF revealed footage of Hezbollah’s presence on the Lebanese-Israeli border, in violation of UN Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Lebanon war. Although most military experts and analysts believe that Hezbollah is deterred from attacking Israel in the near future, it doesn’t bode well for Israel that Russia and not the US is the gatekeeper at the Syrian border to Israel.
Israel’s long term game
There is no reason to believe that there will be a Palestinian state in the near future, which only makes the already tense situation that much worse. ‘Angry Friday’ as today’s demonstrations in Jerusalem has been named, is not only an expression of religious sensitivity. It’s the symbol of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood and sovereignty, which is why it already triggered an Intifada once, and could easily erupt to another one.
Israel may have deterred Hamas from provoking a war so far, but Israel can be sure that Hamas is trying to do everything it can to organize a violent resistance in Jerusalem. If they succeed and violence erupts in the West Bank and Gaza simultaneously, Israel will need help from Egypt and Jordan to handle the Palestinian uprising.
On the Syrian border, Israel now relies heavily on Russia which means that its long term strategy needs adjustment. Israel needs to warm up to Putin in order to make sure that its national interests are secured. Once the ‘buffer zones’ in Syria are implemented fully, Iran will most likely step up its coordination with Hezbollah, which means that Israel will have to persuade Putin to allow Israeli surgical air strikes on weapon deliveries to Hezbollah.
Warming up to Putin means accepting Russian interests that will often collide with Israeli interests. If Russia, however, manages to control the Syrian border so that there is no immediate danger to Israel from Hezbollah and Iran, it could be a situation in which a status quo is established. That is the best case scenario for Israel now that the US is withdrawing from the region. But first, Israel needs to maintain status quo in Jerusalem to avoid a religious conflict that could potentially ignite a regional war.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.