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July Opinion Piece

By Dr. Ron Weiser AM

Fifty years ago, after recapturing the Temple Mount which also houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, Israel established the so called “status quo” which has remained more or less unchanged since 1967.

Effectively, Israel claimed sovereignty over the Temple Mount but handed day to day control to the Muslim Waqf.

As well, despite Arabs being allowed to both enter and pray on the Temple Mount, Jews were allowed to enter but not pray. In part at the time, based on convenient halachic prohibitions forbidding Jews to go on the Temple Mount lest they inadvertently enter the Holy of Holies.

Whether in hindsight that decision was wise or not, every Israeli Prime Minister including Netanyahu, has worked to ensure that the status quo is maintained and that everyone understands Israel has no desire to change it.

Primarily the motivation has been to try and stop a territorial/political dispute from turning into a religious one. Notwithstanding everyone knows that in principle the problem remains that the Palestinians et al have yet to come to terms with the basic concept that a Jewish State of any size in the Middle East can be acceptable to them.

A point by the way that increasing elements in the Australian Labor Party either do not understand or very deliberately choose to ignore.

In any case, on Friday the 14th of July, three Israeli Arab terrorists from Um al-Fahm entered the Temple Mount and emerged with weapons, shooting dead two Israeli Druze policemen – Haiel Sitawe (30 years old) and Kamil Shnaan (22).

In an effort to restore security and to attempt to ensure that weapons could not be smuggled onto the Temple Mount in future and upon the advice of the police, the Israeli government installed metal detectors.

Whilst this step was completely justified and understandable, there was internal discussion as to whether this was the best way to achieve these aims.

The head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, opposed this measure on two grounds – that it would not be a practical way to ensure security and that it would inflame the situation.

On Friday night the 21st of July, in a despicable outrage, a Palestinian terrorist entered the village of Halamish and during a family celebration on shabbat, stabbed to death Yosef Salamon (70), his daughter Chaya (46), son Elad (36) and injured his wife Tova (68).

And then on Sunday the 23rd of July, in an apartment adjacent to the Israeli Embassy in Jordan, an Arab worker stabbed an Israeli security guard with a screwdriver. The Israeli, so far only known as “Ziv” managed to kill the terrorist. A second Jordanian man was killed by a stray bullet in the melee.

Jordanian authorities initially refused to allow Ziv to leave Jordan and wanted an investigation into the incident.

The Jordanian King, Abdullah II, was travelling in the USA at the time and despite numerous attempts, in what was almost certainly a deliberate snub, Prime Minister Netanyahu was unable to contact him.

Many in the Israeli press were recalling two other matters that bore some lesser or greater degree of resemblance to the current crisis in Jordan:

  • the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997 – when Netanyahu was Israeli Prime Minister
  • and the rescue by Egyptian commandos in 2011, after the intervention by President Obama, of six Israelis trapped in the Cairo Embassy by wild mobs who had broken through Egyptian and Israeli security.

What was obvious by its omission and both lamentable and unusual was that during the entire two weeks of turmoil the President of the United States was publicly silent, with no condemnation in regards either to the Temple Mount or Halamish murders.

Eventually, despite ongoing public silence, Trump dispatched Kushner and Greenblatt to assist in negotiations.

Monday the 24th of July saw Argaman travel to Jordan where a compromise was worked out.

Ziv and Ambassador Einat Schlein quickly left Jordan and returned to Israel and Israel announced that the metal detectors on the Temple Mount would be taken down and the cameras removed – which they immediately were.

Abdullah issued instructions to the Waqf to calm the situation.

On Ziv’s return to Israel he was welcomed at Netanyahu’s office, embraced and praised.

This both embarrassed and further angered Abdullah who then demanded an official inquiry into Ziv’s actions, which Israel has now agreed to as well.

Of course, this current crisis has nothing to do with the metal detectors per se, but very much to do with control and access and the perception of Arabs going to prayer through Israeli manned detectors.

Unusually it appears as if the Arab reaction was less politically led this time, but rather religiously motivated, with incitement from the Waqf and others.

Despite the clear and undisputed terrorist action, despite the weapons used having been smuggled onto the Temple Mount by Arabs, all Arab leaders and media condemned Israel and all continually incited further violence against Israel.

This unusually included Jordan who also largely fund and dominate the Muslim Waqf.

Abbas, who had sunk somewhat into insignificance in the Palestinian street, came late to the party but tried to outdo Jordan in his incitement and led to some extreme threats and measures from the Palestinian Authority and Abbas himself.

Turkey once again stuck to their usual script of ugly condemnation of Israel and proved to be one of the most poisonous critics of Israel.

Eventually on Friday, after two weeks of turmoil, Trump personally entered the arena, but it was by way of a call to King Abdullah.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the following about the call:

“Both leaders said they were encouraged by the efforts taken to de-escalate tensions and by the progress that has been made. They pledged to continue to stay in close communication. President Trump also emphasized Jordan’s important role in regional security.”

To date, whilst Netanyahu publicly thanked the US for Kushner and Greenblatt’s participation, there has been no call between Trump and Netanyahu. The optics are poor for Israel.

The big winner from the affair was King Abdullah and Jordan’s position in the Arab world and regarding the USA.

Abdullah was seen to have forced Israel to maintain the status quo despite this being something Israel has strenuously and repeatedly stated it desires in any case.

Abdullah also demonstrated that he is in control of the Temple Mount and is its “protector”.

The King showed that the Waqf listen to Jordan in terms of when to incite and when to calm and in that way, that he controls the Palestinian street.

And by not even bothering to consult with Abbas during the entire 2 weeks, Abdullah stepped back into a Palestinian leadership role that Jordan had publicly ceded some decades ago – perhaps a positive for an Israel looking to gain something/anything out of this crisis.

Most potently, Abdullah entrenched the perception that started almost from the beginning of the Trump presidency, when his meetings with Trump were instrumental in the US not moving the embassy, in calling some settlement expansion “unhelpful” and in bringing the Palestinian question back to centre stage, in that he has the ear of the US President more than any other Mid East leader, Arab or Jew.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a previous Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister and today active in the Religious Peace Initiative fostering Jewish/Arab dialogue, and as part of the group that negotiated this latest deal with the Waqf, managed to put some positives forward.

In regards to the perceived damage Israel took materially and to her pride, Melchior said:

“Despite all the talk about capitulation, it was in our supreme interest in the end, and I am glad the police also saw it that way. What happened in the last two weeks is that all the extremists began to celebrate here freely. All the moderate voices, usually strong and central, just had their heads down.

The Waqf understands the Temple Mount is a holy place, and they are obligated to keep the peace and quiet. Under no circumstances do they want the place to be used by people to hide arms, cause riots or launch incitement.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they accept Israeli sovereignty, but they definitely don’t want the site to be used for incitement and violence. That in itself is a significant message.”

Let’s hope that this “significant message” is real rather than illusionary.

Dr Ron Weiser AM

Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.