Politics, foreign policy, and the struggle for the Temple Mount 

Brian M Downing

Fifty years ago, shortly after Israeli paratroopers took control of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, the army’s chief rabbi asked the presiding general to blow up Muslim shrines atop the Temple Mount. This, in the rabbi’s estimation, would clear the way for rebuilding the Temple where it stood before the Romans destroyed it almost two millennia earlier. The general, Uzi Narkiss, ignored the rabbi’s request and when he persisted, Narkiss threatened to arrest him.

The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, remains a source of conflict. In the mid-eighties, a group of West Bank settlers set out to do what the rabbi wanted General Narkiss to do. They’d formed a skilled team and acquired sufficient explosives. Shin Bet, an Israeli security bureau, stopped them.

Ten years later, Ariel Sharon’s calculated walk near the Temple Mount triggered the Second Intifada. Even archeological digs in the area elicit suspicions and demonstrations. Tensions continue.

The crisis today 

Last week, after a shooting near the site, the Netanyahu government set up metal detectors at access points. Demonstrations swiftly followed. Over the next few days shootings and stabbings spread across Jerusalem and occupied territories.

The new security measures seem a reasonable response to threats of greater violence, including those by the Israeli Right. But neutral observers and impassioned demonstrators alike believe Prime Minister Netanyahu is determined to take charge of the site. After all, his coalition has many who share the vision of the Temple Mount that General Narkiss stopped cold back in 1967.

Short term, Netanyahu may authorize Jews, at least male ones, to pray there – a reasonable proposition in the abstract, though a violation of international agreements.

Long term, Netanyahu or a successor may build a modest Jewish shrine in open spaces atop the hill. Grander renovations are all out certainly in mind – ones that will convey religious supremacy to the nation and national power to the region.

At the very least Netanyahu is gauging local and world reactions. Bold steps, he knows, will bring protracted rioting and open a chasm between the Palestinians and their feckless political leadership, or cause political leaders to break completely with the Israeli government. Either one will allow Netanyahu to increase repression across the occupied lands and dismantle the Palestinian Authority, leaving the indigenous West Bank populace with neither leadership nor hope.

Previous American administrations would forcefully oppose such steps. The present one, though, is far more obliging toward the Israeli Right. Stronger opposition will come from Netanyahu’s regional allies and domestic opponents.

Sunni allies

In a remarkable diplomatic feat, Netanyahu has convinced Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia, that Iran is a common danger and that they must unite against it. Sunni monarchs have eased opposition to Israel and are cooperating in rolling back Iranian-Shia power across the Middle East.

The Temple Mount crisis, should Netanyahu take full advantage of it, will endanger the coalition. Concern is growing throughout the region, and less than vigorous responses by Sunni princes will weaken their already dubious support. Further, the crisis comes at the same time as the Sunni powers’ clampdown on Qatar. The small yet influential country has responded by using its famed television network, Al Jazeera, to give generous coverage of events in Jerusalem and note the limited responses from Arab capitals.

Netanyahu cannot afford to lose important allies that figure highly in his foreign policy agenda. It is clear to him, though, that actions around the Temple Mount, token or substantive, have destabilizing effects in Arab capitals. This may prove useful one day.

Domestic opposition

Netanyahu holds a majority in the Knesset but polls show softening popular support. The crisis will energize center-left parties which are already incensed by the Right’s growing fervor and intolerance. Control of the Temple Mount will further strengthen the militarist-nationalism and messianic-fundamentalism that is endangering secular, democratic principles. Indeed, it may constitute a point of no return.

Israeli generals, retired and active duty, have expressed deep concerns, warning of parallels to dark nationalist movements in 1930s Europe. Some have warned of emerging “fascism” – a term used recklessly in the United States and elsewhere but advisedly in a nation formed in the wake of those dark nationalist movements. It was an adherent of messianic-fundamentalism, the generals well know, who assassinated a founder of Israel’s army and a respected chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin – an event widely celebrated by West Bank settlers.

The army and Shin Bet are urging Netanyahu to relent on the metal detectors and return to the status quo at the Temple Mount. Their pressure, combined with strategic considerations, may dissuade Netanyahu from pushing too far, for the time being. Demographic trends show strong growth in the religious-nationalist population and significantly lower levels for secular Israelis. He may calculate that time is on his side, and not on the side of his security chiefs, secular foes, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.