As Israel bakes in the midst of its usual summer heat wave, Jerusalem is heating up in other ways. Last week’s terrorist attack right outside the gates to the Temple Mount obviously raised the temperature, and it has the potential to cause even more chaos in its aftermath. But it is not the only contributing factor to making Jerusalem an even bigger flashpoint than it already is. Israeli politicians have been debating and introducing a series of political measures regarding Jerusalem’s boundaries, status, and future that ensure the city will remain the most sensitive topic in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the one that will be most difficult to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction.
I have written extensively in the past about the situation on the Temple Mount and the enormous sacrifices that Israel makes to maintain the political and religious status quo. The past seven days have reiterated that Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to be prudent and responsible with regard to the Temple Mount, and that he is acting in the best interests of Israel’s security. Furthermore, it is an area where Netanyahu unambiguously subsumes his own political interests to the greater good and in the face of a hugely emotional issue to boot.
Last Friday’s attack was committed by three Palestinian citizens of Israel who either brought weapons onto the Temple Mount or retrieved weapons already stockpiled there, and after they committed their attack they fled back to the Temple Mount in an effort to take advantage of the sanctuary of holy ground. This is not the first time that the Temple Mount has been used as a repository for weapons; police found a stockpile of pipe bombs in al-Aqsa mosque as recently as September 2015. This comes against the backdrop of the continuing policy that prohibits Jews from praying at their holiest religious site, not to mention the absurd efforts on the part of UNESCO and others to deny any Jewish connection to the site. Despite pressure from members of his coalition to alter the Temple Mount arrangements – to open the site to Jewish prayer or to close the Temple Mount to Muslims until further notice – Netanyahu acted in a way designed to deal with the proximate problem without unnecessarily fanning the flames.
Closing the Temple Mount complex for two days while installing metal detectors at the entrances and then reopening it on Sunday was absolutely the right move. There is no reason why the Temple Mount should be any different than the Western Wall, the Great Mosque of Mecca, or any other holy places around the world that unfortunately but necessarily require security checks before entering. The Temple Mount is already the site of a discriminatory policy that privileges Muslims at other worshipers’ expense; to suggest that having to walk through a metal detector is an unforgiveable affront that alters the status quo is an insult to thinking people everywhere.
While the usual suspects – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah – are attempting to use the metal detectors as a pretext for violence that will benefit them politically, President Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan both condemned the attack last weekend while urging Israel to reopen the complex. This is precisely what Netanyahu did, and while clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police have continued all week and will likely intensify this Friday, Netanyahu should get credit for taking what seems to be the least intrusive security measure under the circumstances and standing tall in the face of pressure from his right to act differently. One should not underestimate the growing importance of the Temple Mount within religious Zionism, which makes up the base of the Netanyahu coalition, and calls for him to alter the Temple Mount status quo will only increase. Unlike Ariel Sharon during his Temple Mount stroll in 2000, Netanyahu is acting like the adult in the room.
While the Temple Mount crisis roils Jerusalem, there are other efforts under way to make sure that Jerusalem remains a long-term flashpoint. Last week, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and Likud MK Yoav Kisch announced their intention to push a bill that would expand the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit, Efrat, and the Gush Etzion regional council, while removing three Arab neighborhoods – including the Shuafat refugee camp – from the Jerusalem municipality. Following on Katz and Kisch’s heels, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation unanimously approved an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem that requires 80 out of 120 MKs to approve any decision ceding sovereignty over part of Jerusalem, although a simple 61 MK majority could approve redrawing Jerusalem’s municipal boundary.
These moves are intended to make Jerusalem the ultimate obstacle in any future negotiations with the Palestinians, but in some ways, they actually make the resolution of Jerusalem as a final status issue between Israel and the Palestinians easier. The absurd effort by Katz and Kisch to pretend that far-flung areas of the West Bank are part of Jerusalem simply by redrawing the municipal boundaries demonstrates the legal fiction that has always been at the heart of the concept of “united Jerusalem.” One of the factors that makes the Jerusalem issue so difficult is that after Israel conquered the eastern part of the city in 1967, it redrew the city’s official boundaries to incorporate not only the Old City – which was and is clearly part of Jerusalem – but Arab and Jewish neighborhoods to the north, south, and east, and then again in 1993 to incorporate more territory to the west. The definition of what constitutes Jerusalem has been expanded to such a degree that many who insist that the city remain undivided now and forever don’t actually understand how much area the Jerusalem municipality now encompasses. That Katz and Kisch want with the stroke of a pen to eliminate Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem that were historically not considered part of the city shows that it will actually be relatively easy to divide Jerusalem (other than the Old City and the Holy Basin) in a logical way while still claiming Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel. Requiring only a simple majority of MKs rather than a super majority to make territorial changes to Jerusalem will allow the type of compromises that will be required down the road.
But the amendment to the Basic Law also guarantees that the heartfelt emotions over Jerusalem will continue to dominate all else, since the effect of requiring a supermajority of 80 MKs to approve any sovereignty changes will be felt in any arrangements over the Old City. No Israeli government – rightly in my view – is going to redraw Jerusalem’s boundaries to leave out the Old City, and any type of complex new sovereignty arrangement where Israel maintains sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter but cedes or shares sovereignty elsewhere will now be much harder. As the current Temple Mount furor demonstrates all too well, passion over Jerusalem has the potential to lead to unprecedented violence that can spiral out of control and even across borders. The political moves taken by the Knesset mean that this issue will always be at the forefront long after everyone gets used to the ordinariness of metal detectors outside the Bab al-Asbat, and the potency of the status of the Temple Mount will remain the most useful tool for spoilers on both sides.