Aqsa cri­sis hard­ens lead­ers’ po­si­tions

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The lat­est cri­sis over one of the most com­bustible spots in the Mid­dle East has been de­fused for now, but has pushed the lead­ers of Is­rael, Jor­dan and the Pales­tini­ans into tougher po­si­tions that could trig­ger new con­fronta­tions. The stand­off over a Jerusalem shrine holy to Mus­lims and Jews also sig­naled that the fes­ter­ing Is­raeli-Palestinian con­flict is shift­ing fur­ther from what was once seen as a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute to­ward a re­li­gious one.

What Started It?

On July 14, three Arab as­sailants opened fire from the walled com­pound at Is­raeli po­lice guards, killing two. The shoot­ing left Is­raeli po­lice scram­bling for ways to screen wor­ship­pers for weapons as they en­ter the Mus­lim-run site through eight gates. Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu ap­proved a po­lice rec­om­men­da­tion to in­stall metal de­tec­tors - re­port­edly over ob­jec­tions from Is­rael’s mil­i­tary and a do­mes­tic se­cu­rity agency. The new mea­sures stoked Mus­lim fears that Is­rael is try­ing to ex­pand con­trol over the site un­der the guise of se­cu­rity - a charge Is­rael de­nies. Pales­tini­ans in Jerusalem, led by se­nior Mus­lim cler­ics, be­gan stag­ing mass street prayers in protest, four Pales­tini­ans were killed in street clashes with Is­raeli troops and a Palestinian killed three mem­bers of an Is­raeli fam­ily in a West Bank set­tle­ment. Ten­sions ebbed af­ter Is­rael re­moved the metal de­tec­tors and other de­vices ear­lier this week.

Side­lined Palestinian Pres­i­dent

Mah­moud Ab­bas, who runs au­ton­o­mous en­claves in the West Bank, was in China and his re­turn home a week into the cri­sis re­in­forced per­cep­tions among many Pales­tini­ans that he is out of touch. Try­ing to as­sert a lead­er­ship role, Ab­bas an­nounced a sus­pen­sion of se­cu­rity co­or­di­na­tion with Is­rael un­til the sit­u­a­tion at the shrine is re­stored to what it was be­fore July 14.

For years, Ab­bas’ forces worked with Is­rael to foil at­tacks by mil­i­tants in the West Bank, of­ten act­ing against a shared foe, the Is­lamic mil­i­tant Ha­mas. Such mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial co­op­er­a­tion, though un­pop­u­lar among Pales­tini­ans, sur­vived many crises and failed ef­forts to ne­go­ti­ate the terms of Palestinian state­hood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Is­rael cap­tured in 1967. Ab­bas threat­ened in the past to end se­cu­rity co­or­di­na­tion, but never fol­lowed through. If he now re­stores such ties, he risks fur­ther harm to his do­mes­tic stand­ing. If he doesn’t, Is­rael’s right-wing govern­ment could re­tal­i­ate and threaten the sur­vival of his Palestinian Author­ity.

The cri­sis high­lighted Ab­bas’ fad­ing in­flu­ence in Is­raeli-an­nexed east Jerusalem. He also risks be­ing cut off com­pletely from Gaza, the ter­ri­tory he lost to Ha­mas in 2007. In re­cent weeks, Ha­mas and a for­mer Ab­bas-aide-turned ri­val, Mo­hammed Dahlan, forged a Gaza power-shar­ing deal that would open the block­aded ter­ri­tory to Egypt and fur­ther weaken ties with the West Bank. Ab­bas, 82, was briefly hos­pi­tal­ized Satur­day for what his of­fice said was a rou­tine checkup, but it also served as a re­minder of his ad­vanced age and lack of a suc­ces­sor.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Un­der Fire

Ne­tanyahu was lam­basted by all sides in Is­rael. The cen­ter-left ac­cused him of mak­ing hasty de­ci­sions at a volatile site - the third holi­est in Is­lam and the most sa­cred on in Ju­daism - that has trig­gered ma­jor rounds of Is­raeli-Palestinian vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing one in­volv­ing Ne­tanyahu in the mid-1990s. Ne­tanyahu’s ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist ri­vals, key to the sur­vival of his coali­tion, said he ca­pit­u­lated to Arab pres­sure and ef­fec­tively en­cour­aged Pales­tini­ans to push for more con­ces­sions.

Ne­tanyahu re­sponded with a flurry of tough state­ments. He or­dered the re­sump­tion of plans to build a new West Bank set­tle­ment and re­port­edly gave the green light to draft leg­is­la­tion to bring sev­eral West Bank set­tle­ments un­der Jerusalem’s ju­ris­dic­tion. He vowed to “kick Al Jazeera out of Is­rael,” ac­cus­ing the Qatar-based satel­lite sta­tion of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence over the shrine cri­sis. And he called for the death penalty - not im­posed by Is­rael for more than half a cen­tury - for last week’s killer of the Is­raeli fam­ily. Even if it’s mostly rhetoric, Ne­tanyahu’ state­ments sug­gest that fend­ing off his ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist chal­lengers is more im­por­tant to him than calm­ing the at­mos­phere. As both Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas harden po­si­tions, chances of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion - it­self em­broiled in tur­moil - be­ing able to re­vive peace talks seem close to zero.

Jor­dan’s An­gry Monarch

King Ab­dul­lah II pub­licly vented his anger about what he called Ne­tanyahu’s “provoca­tive” be­hav­ior. Such harsh words from an Arab leader known for his mea­sured tone were prompted by twin crises be­tween the two coun­tries and sig­naled del­i­cate ties had taken a hit. Ab­dul­lah, Mus­lim cus­to­dian of the Jerusalem shrine, was in­volved in try­ing to defuse ten­sions there when he faced an­other com­pli­ca­tion: On Sun­day, a guard at the Is­raeli Em­bassy in Jor­dan shot dead two Jor­da­ni­ans af­ter one at­tacked him with a screw driver.

Af­ter a phone call be­tween the king and Ne­tanyahu, the guard re­turned to Is­rael and Is­rael re­moved the metal de­tec­tors. The se­quence of events sug­gested a horse trade with prob­lem­atic op­tics for Ab­dul­lah that might have been for­got­ten quickly had Ne­tanyahu not given a hero’s wel­come to the guard and in­flamed long-run­ning re­sent­ment against Is­rael in Jor­dan. Jor­dan has since charged the guard with mur­der, de­manded he be tried in Is­rael and is­sued a veiled threat - through an uniden­ti­fied of­fi­cial quoted by Jor­da­nian me­dia - that Is­rael’s ambassador would not be al­lowed to re­turn to Jor­dan un­til the guard is held ac­count­able.

Is­rael and Jor­dan share strate­gic se­cu­rity in­ter­ests, but any open co­op­er­a­tion at this time might not be tol­er­ated by the Jor­da­nian pub­lic. Ab­dul­lah al­ready faces other threats to Jor­dan’s sta­bil­ity, in­clud­ing ris­ing unem­ploy­ment and spillover from re­gional con­flicts.

From Land Dis­pute to Holy War?

Re­cent events made it clear that the con­flict in the Holy Land is no longer just a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute that can be re­solved through cre­ative par­ti­tion ideas. Such ef­forts ran aground a decade ago, and the ab­sence of a so­lu­tion has given a big­ger role to the re­li­gious com­po­nent. The show­down over shrine was in­creas­ingly be­ing framed as a zero sum game be­tween re­li­gions. — AFP

A Palestinian man walks past Is­raeli bor­der po­lice as they stand guard while Mus­lim wor­ship­pers pray out­side Jerusalem’s Old City on Fri­day. — AP

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