Aside from Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, there have been two other Middle East leaders who have been intimately involved in one way or another over the Temple Mount crisis: King Abdullah of Jordan and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey. Taken as a study in contrasts, they provide a great lesson in leadership and responsibility (or lack thereof). For easy shorthand, think of them as the fireman and the arsonist.
Any policy decisions over the Temple Mount necessarily involve Jordan due to its historic role in Jerusalem, its de jure – if not quite de facto – control of the Waqf, and Israel’s formal recognition in the peace treaty between the two countries of Jordan’s special role on the Temple Mount. For political reasons, tension or violence over alleged disruptions to the status quo at the site are enormously damaging to King Abdullah, and he generally wants to resolve any conflicts as quickly as possible. Jordan benefits from the peace treaty with Israel and the resulting cooperation on various projects in myriad ways. Israel is a valuable intelligence and defense ally in Jordan’s battle against ISIS and other extremist groups, but there are also economic projects that are vital to Jordanian agriculture and water security, most prominently the $10 billion Red-Dead pipeline. The political pressure that the king faces to cut ties with Israel anytime there are rumors that Israel is threatening al-Aqsa puts him in a bind where he is forced to take self-defeating measures, so his priority is generally to work out a solution that makes the problem go away without endangering the Israeli-Jordanian relationship.
This case has been no different. The king’s immediate reaction following the terrorist shooting right outside the Temple Mount that killed Israeli policemen Haiel Stawi and Kamil Shnaan was to condemn the attack and call for Israel to reopen the site for prayer. After the metal detectors were installed, rather than publicly rage against the Israeli government, the king and the Jordanian government by all accounts worked to try and come up with a compromise that would eliminate the metal detectors while still addressing Israel’s security concerns. But the reliance on the king to do the responsible thing really shone through following the attack on the Israeli security guard in the Israeli embassy compound in Amman, and the guard’s subsequent shooting of his attacker and another Jordanian bystander. The actual facts in this case matter less than the optics; what ordinary Jordanians saw was that an Israeli shot and killed two Jordanians, and Israel was demanding to bring him home without having to face an investigation or justice in Jordan. One might imagine how this could have quickly spiraled out of control. Instead, Israel and Jordan were able to work out an agreement that brought the embassy guard home and ended the crisis, and to the extent that the quid pro quo was trading the guard for the metal detectors – something that seems to have obviously happened but that has been denied by both sides – it allowed both sides to de-escalate things. Notably, King Abdullah and the Jordanian government have not tried to use the Temple Mount controversy or the incident at the embassy in Amman for political gain by stirring up further anger against Israel.
This does not mean that King Abdullah is perfect or that Jordan bears zero responsibility. As Dan Shapiro smartly notes, Jordan could have done more in the past and should do more going forward to make sure that the Waqf does not allow weapons to be smuggled onto the Temple Mount and prevents violence. During the last crisis over the site in fall 2015, Jordan agreed to install security cameras around the Temple Mount complex but then unilaterally canceled the agreement due to Palestinian complaints, despite the fact that the Waqf is supposed to answer to the Jordanian government rather than any Palestinian entity. But overall, Israel is fortunate to have King Abdullah as its interlocutor when dealing with sensitive issues over the Temple Mount, and there is no question that he has been a responsible actor in resolving the latest crisis.
On the other side of the coin you have Erdoğan, who is doing everything in his power not only to try and use the Temple Mount for his own narrow political gain, but to supplant Jordan’s role in Jerusalem entirely. Erdoğan views Turkey as a more appropriate outside power to have a special status in Jerusalem due to the Ottoman Empire’s centuries of sovereignty over the city, and Turkey has been inserting itself into Jerusalem issues in a very assertive way. This manifests itself in Turkish dollars flowing into Islamic charities and development in East Jerusalem, but also in Erdoğan’s constant invoking of Jerusalem and the alleged threat that Israel poses to al-Aqsa in his public comments. The Turkish government has been paying to bus protestors to the Temple Mount from around the country, and pictures have circulated on social media in the last two weeks of Muslim protestors around the site waving Turkish flags. When President Rivlin had a phone conversation with Erdoğan last Thursday – over the objections of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which rightly views Erdoğan as anything but helpful – and asked Erdoğan to condemn the terrorist attack on the Israeli policemen, Erdoğan pointedly kept his mouth shut. Instead, he accused Israel this week of trying to take over al-Aqsa and urged Muslims to go to Jerusalem to defend it, and following the decision to remove the metal detectors, he kept up his alarmist rhetoric and claimed that the move was insufficient and that Israel is trying to destroy Jerusalem’s Islamic character.
Erdoğan is not alone in pouring gasoline on the flames. Abbas deserves an entire column of his own detailing his irresponsibility in nearly every aspect of this drama, including his continuing dissembling over alleged threats to the Temple Mount status quo and his shockingly irresponsible and dangerous invitation to the Tanzim militia to lead mass protests this Friday. Any violence that occurs as a result should be laid directly at Abbas’s feet. But Abbas is acting defensively out of cowardice and fear over what his political rivals will say; what makes Erdoğan’s behavior more odious is that he is actively inflaming passions and inciting against Israel simply to make himself look better and boost his standing. He wants to be seen as a Muslim leader rushing to the defense of al-Aqsa, and he is willing to sacrifice both Israeli and Palestinian lives to naked egoism and narcissistic political ambition. He is seizing on an issue that is nowhere near his actual purview with the intent of making the situation worse. When Israel and Turkey officially reconciled last June, I predicted that any rapprochement was only going to last as long as the current quiet between Israel and Gaza, and that the first sign of Israeli-Palestinian trouble would bring out Erdoğan’s intemperate volatility in a way that would collapse whatever fragile détente existed between the two sides. Apparently I was not pessimistic enough, as it increasingly looks like it won’t actually take open hostilities between the IDF and Hamas to put Israel and Turkey back at square one. All it will take is Erdoğan continuing to demonstrate that ruining his own country is not enough for him, and that he won’t rest until he has taken his uniquely toxic ability to turn any looming catastrophe into an actual catastrophe and tested it on the Israeli-Palestinian stage.