Repeated failures compound Netanyahu’s Al-Aqsa predicament
The Al-Aqsa mosque, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the third holiest site in Islam. It sits within an enclosed compound known as the Noble Sanctuary, which also includes the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built on the site of the sacred stone which is believed to mark the place from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Dome of the Rock is also believed by Jewish scholars to be the location of the first and second temples, both of which were destroyed – the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the second by the Romans in 70 CE. Within Judaism the entire area, including Al-Aqsa, is known as Temple Mount and is equally as sacred.
The veneration of this holy site by both Jews and Muslims, rather than a source of understanding and mutual respect, is a lightning rod for the deep enmity that exists between both in the context of Israel’s control over the Old City in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967. Further compounding the tensions within Jerusalem are Israel’s ongoing illegal settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, encroaching on Palestinian areas and making the prospect of East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state increasingly impossible.
The current crisis was triggered by the assertion of right wing Jewish activists that Jews be allowed to pray at Temple Mount. Since Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem in 1967, Jews have been allowed to visit the site without praying. The sensitivities and tensions surrounding the site as a consequence have long been present, never more so than when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the site in 2000 accompanied by hundreds of Israeli riot police. The resulting disturbance was the trigger for the Second Intifada, which lasted five years and during which thousands died, the majority of them Palestinians.
The prospect of another all-out conflict erupting over Al-Aqsa is all too real, which is why current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been thrust into one of the most dangerous crises of his long and controversial premiership.
Right wing Jewish activists and religious extremists have gained traction within Israel in recent years, putting more and more pressure on the country’s political leaders to brook no dissent or compromise when it comes to the rights of the Palestinians. To them the Palestinians are an alien presence on historic Jewish land and should be treated as such, regardless of international law and human rights.
Yehuda Glick is one such activist. Born in the United States, Glick moved to Israel as a child, where for the past few years he has led a movement to allow Jews to pray at Temple Mount. On 29 October, after speaking at a political event in Jerusalem, Glick was approached by a man on a motorcycle and shot. The alleged assassin, Mutaz Hijazi, was chased by the Israeli police, who shot him dead. The police claim they only used lethal force when their attempt to arrest Hijazi was met with gunfire, a claim the victim’s family denies.
The furore over Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount would on the surface appear to revolve around the denial of the same right of Jews to pray at Temple Mount as Muslims to pray at Al-Aqsa. But such a superficial rendering of the issue ignores the wider context of Israel’s decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian land and denial of their right to self-determination. The humiliation and loss of dignity that has been a feature of Palestinian life as a consequence, not forgetting the material consequences of their colonization, leaves them little to hold on to by way of comfort. At such times religion and religious identity acts as a comfort blanket, a sanctuary and escape from the brutal reality of life under occupation. The exclusive right of Palestinian Muslims to pray at Al-Aqsa takes on a deeper spiritual and political meaning when considered in this light.
Benjamin Netanyahu has proved himself a leader who never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. During his current and second stint as Prime Minister of Israel, beginning in 2009, he has presided over the worst relations between an Israeli and US government since the 1950s. The recent revelation that a leading member of the Obama administration called him “a chickenshit” over his refusal to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements and his obdurate refusal to push forward the peace process, may do his reputation and popularity little harm at home, especially with the lack of sympathy for the Palestinians that currently exists within Israel. But it risks alienating support for Israel within the US – support that has been key in maintaining US economic support for the Jewish state to the tune of $9 billion per year.
The Israeli Prime Minister has managed to place himself in the invidious position of not being intransigent enough for the right within his own country or flexible enough for an international community which has seen support for the Palestinian people around the world grow exponentially over the past few years, placing pressure on Western governments to adopt a more evenhanded approach when it comes to this ongoing conflict. As such the exceptionalism that has long been enjoyed by Israel is no longer sustainable in the long term. As such, unless it elects a leader with the requisite moral courage and political nous to change direction the Jewish state will find itself an international pariah.
Benjamin Netanyahu is not such a leader. On the contrary, if success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm, Netanyahu is guaranteed a place in history as one of the most successful politicians the world has seen.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.