Are we are the verge of a new intifada? The violence of the past weeks, which started in Jerusalem, has now spread to many parts of the West Bank. The impetus or “excuse” for the violence has been, like in the precursor of the second intifada, the call “to protect al-Aksa.” In the days prior to the second intifada and prior to the visit by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, campaigns were being waged by the Islamic Movement (Northern Branch) to protect Islam and al-Aksa. Then, as now, there was no real threat to al-Aksa and the real problems that were behind the great frustration and anger of the Palestinians were elsewhere. But, then as now, it must be understood that al-Aksa is a nuclear powder keg that could lead to an unimaginable explosion – not only in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but throughout the region.
The symbol of al Aksa (which for Palestinians and Muslims is not just the mosque at the southern end of the Haram a-Sharif – the Temple Mount – but the entire mount) is first and foremost the direct connect to Allah, but it is also the representation of Israeli domination over Palestine and control over the lives of Palestinians. The symbol of the Dome of the Rock – the Golden Dome – is found everywhere, all around the Muslim world and in most Palestinian homes. The issue of Jewish presence and prayer there is not a religious issue – although it has become one. According to sharia – Islamic law, there is no prohibition against Jewish prayer on al-Aksa. More than one Palestinian Muslim official told me that from the point of view of Islam there is no problem with Jews or others being on the Haram a-Sharif. The problem, they said, was political.
For Israel, the problem is the extent to which the issue has become so sensitive for Muslims as a religious issue and the length that individual Muslims and organized groups “defending Islam” are willing to go to “protect” al-Aksa against Israel. There is a deep belief that Israel intends to destroy the mosque and to build the Third Temple. No amount of reasoning or proof will convince these people that what they believe is not happening, such as tunneling underneath the al-Aksa Mosque so that it will collapse.
Even reasonable leaders like King Abdullah of Jordan seem to believe that Israel at least, intends to divide the mosque, like in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, to allow for constant and regular Jewish prayer there.
The issue at hand is not about the rights of Jews to pray there. The Temple Mount it clearly the most holy place on earth for Jews. For me there is no question that all faiths should have open and free access to all holy places. If the Jewish people who demand the right to pray on the Temple Mount believe in what they say – that there is one God – then the God of Islam is also the God of Christianity who is also the God of Israel. This One God cannot possibly want the most holy place on earth for Jews to become the impetus for war and death. Yes, Jews should have the right to pray on the Temple Mount. But it is not a matter of rights, but rather, and much more importantly, about the wisdom of whether or not to exercise those rights.
I am not taking aim at people who want to pray on the Temple Mount – they are not the real problem. The real problem is the extremists on the Muslim side who are prepared to use violence to prevent the Jews from praying there. They are the real criminals. But this is not a game of scoring points, or even deciding who is right or wrong. The stakes are much too high to turn this holy site into a match between Israel and Palestine, between Jews and Muslims, or between Judaism and Islam. For the sake of Israel, and for the peace of this bleeding land, we need to accept that until the Messiah comes, the arrangements whereby the Muslims pray on the Mount and the Jews at the Kotel is the formula that will preserve the sanctity of that holy space and not cause the unnecessary loss of life.
It is also necessary to immediately address the real issue – not the symbolic one – which is the growing frustration, anger and deepening poverty in Palestine because of the loss of hope. The Israeli newspapers have been filled with articles analyzing the frustrations of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and what he is likely to do in the coming period. Almost none of the articles touched the real issues – that the frustrations and anger of Abbas are only a reflection of what all Palestinians are feeling. The complete absence of any political process that will lead to the end of the occupation and the freedom of Palestine not only impacts the economy, as reflected, once again, in a new World Bank report on the Palestinian economy, it reflects the mood of the nation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often likened to a bicycle – it cannot stand in place, if it doesn’t move forward, it falls. That is what is happening in Palestine. The symbolic steps taken by the Palestinians – gaining recognition of statehood, joining international conventions and institutions, raising a flag at the UN, etc., can only go so far to propel the bicycle forward. Now it is falling. If the Palestinians fall, their suffering will not remain within the Green Line.
The international community is not going to rescue Israel and Palestine. The US Secretary of State will not rescue Israel and Palestine. This can only be done by Israel and Palestine. The international community can and is likely to set down some new parameters that could assist Israel and Palestine in future negotiations, but the hard work of ending the conflict can only be done by Israel and Palestine together – in direct and secret bilateral negotiations. That is the best formula for reaching peace. Direct and secret negotiations have been the best negotiations between the parties – in the original Oslo talks (before the first agreement), in Taba in January 2001 and in the Olmert-Abbas talks. US mediation has never worked and the US mediator, whoever it is, almost always raises expectations and then fails to deliver. There is no real alternative to direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I know for a fact that if Netanyahu was serious about negotiating, as he says in public, and came to Abbas with a genuine offer to negotiate, he would be answered positively.
There is no real alternative for either side – so why are we wasting time and risking more human lives? The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.