As I note with depressing frequency, one of the more maddening aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that nearly everything having to do with Israelis and Palestinians is viewed as a zero-sum struggle. Each side believes that it wins through the other side’s loss, even if there is nothing tangible that the winning side gains. Denying something to the other side despite it not making you better off or impinging upon your own rights is the norm in this arena, and rather than see things in terms of absolute gains, everything is filtered through the prism of relative gains, both real and imagined.
There are two stark examples of this currently unfolding, and both demonstrate how difficult it is to break out of the exclusionary mindset and how difficult it is to contemplate counterarguments to long-held shibboleths. One has to do with the alleged battle over the Temple Mount, and the other has to do with the alleged battle over Area C. In both cases, despite the fact that the exclusionary policies that are being enforced are patently discriminatory, they are defended as holy writ and the hypothetical consequences should they be overturned are given far more weight than the actual consequences that are in effect.
Everyone is familiar with the fabled status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that has reigned since Israel captured the Old City in 1967, which insists that Muslims pray there while everyone else visits. The reason for the status quo is that allowing non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount is perceived as a threat to the al-Aqsa mosque—the third holiest site in Islam—and thus has the potential to set off shockwaves of violence, not only from Palestinians but from Muslims around the world. Any shift in the arrangements, whether it be something slight such as a Jew walking on the Mount while whispering a prayer or something large such as the erection of magnetometers at the entrance, turns into a diplomatic incident involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan, and frequently pulls in outside parties, including the U.S. Israeli prime ministers, including Binyamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, are always quick to note their upholding of the status quo. Policies that would upend the arrangement or that create ambiguity—most recently in the announcement unveiling the Abraham Accords and in Bennett’s statement on Tisha B’Av (the day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples)—are rapidly walked back. The potential for the Temple Mount to be the site of the next figurative assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and kick off World War III is widely assumed.
This assumption may very well be right, but what is rarely noted is the patent unfairness of the resulting policy. It has been five years nearly to the day since I argued that not enough people acknowledge that what takes place on the Temple Mount amounts to religious apartheid directed at Jews, and since then the rhetoric and exclusionary attitude has only gotten worse. The Temple Mount, and not the Western Wall, is Judaism’s holiest spot and more than anything the symbol of Jewish sovereignty in and connection to the land, yet the post-’67 political status quo is treated as if it was divinely handed down from on high. Years ago, I participated in a meeting between a senior Jordanian official and American Jewish leaders, where one of the attendees voiced the conviction that it was the job of American Jewish organizations to do whatever they could to ensure that no Jew ever prayed on the Temple Mount. This sentiment seemed to shake nobody else but me, a sign of how widespread the quasi-religious fervor is over the Temple Mount status quo.
I am not questioning that there may be violence and rioting if Jews begin widely and publicly praying on the Temple Mount; I am questioning why so many treat “Muslims pray, Jews visit” as if it is natural rather than repugnant. But further to the point, if Jews were to pray on the Temple Mount—something that the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court allowed earlier this month before being swiftly reversed by the Jerusalem District Court—it would not in any way, shape, or form impede Muslims’ right to do so or their own deep connection to the site. The entire premise underlying the status quo is that Muslims lose if Jews are able to express their own connection to the site, which is both morally offensive and practically wrong. Jews who want to pray at their holy site do not detract from the prayers of Muslims who pray in a mosque on the same plaza, and the notion that somehow Jewish prayer defiles Muslim prayer or the sanctity of the site should not be accepted as if it is not deeply objectionable. Pope Francis praying at the Western Wall in 2014 was not treated as abrogating or diluting Jewish rights at the site, nor was Bahraini official Mohammed Saleh doing so just two weeks ago. It is incumbent on anyone who believes that the status quo at the Temple Mount should be upheld for practical reasons to avoid falling into the trap of defending exclusionary zero-sum thinking on its own merits simply because too many accept it unchallenged.
The same dynamic is unfolding in Area C, where Israelis blithely accept the notion that any Palestinian presence, no matter where, how small, or what extenuating circumstances exist, is a blow to Jewish settlement or dominance. When the West Bank Civil Administration announced this summer that a number of building permits would go to the village of Khirbet Zakkariyah, which is situated in a valley in Gush Etzion and surrounded by Alon Shvut, Rosh Tsurim, and Elazar, it should not have raised anyone’s hackles. Khirbet Zakkariyah is located in a spot that even Palestinian negotiators’ maps designate as going to Israel as part of land swaps in any permanent status agreement; it is a village of fewer than 400 people, almost all of whom work as farmers or for Israeli businesses; and it is neither a hotbed of terrorist activity nor a source of friction with the settlements that surround it. When leaders like Efrat mayor Oded Revivi tout the allegedly wonderful and harmonious relations that Gush Etzion settlements have with their Palestinian neighbors, he is talking about places like Khirbet Zakkariyah.
Yet the idea that this village—where every single building, from homes to the school to the mosque, has a demolition order issued for it over lack of permits—would achieve some small measure of peace of mind and stability was too much for Khirbet Zakkariyah’s neighbors, who believe its existence harms the fabric of the surrounding settlements by breaking Jewish continuity in the area. I have been to Khirbet Zakkariyah twice, met the residents, seen the ramshackle buildings against the backdrop of Gush Etzion’s homes and community center on the neighboring hill. Legalizing a small school, a mosque whose loudspeakers are literally hidden among bushes so as not to attract attention, and a bunch of corrugated tin buildings does nothing to disrupt Jewish life in the area or diminish Israeli residents’ security. Khirbet Zakkariyah is already there and does not adversely impact anyone, yet improving the lots of its residents is now controversial because Israelis insist that if Arabs in Area C win, they automatically lose.
It’s also worth reflecting on whether to take at face value any hair-raising claims about the Palestinian Authority taking over Area C in justifying Israeli policy, when there is such determined opposition to fulfilling a fundamental need for housing to Palestinians in a spot that everyone assumes will one day be formally part of Israel. This isn’t about laying claim to open or sparsely populated territory in Area C in order to prevent it from being part of a future Palestine, but about maintaining a sword of Damocles over the heads of Palestinians who will eventually be Israeli citizens or permanent residents, for no reason other than they are Palestinians. Israelis gain nothing from doing this, but the exclusionary mindset that is hardwired for too many makes this seem as if it is perfectly logical and defensible.
The fact that the Temple Mount and Area C are the two contested areas where the Palestinians and Israelis respectively have the most sovereignty and sense of control makes this even worse. It isn’t only about religious discrimination or Jewish dominance, but a fear in both cases that the other side is threatening that sovereignty and sense of control. What it demonstrates, however, is where both sides immediately go in instances where they have more authority, and where they go is to deny basic freedoms to the other side. Denying something to another party even if it doesn’t impact you may be a well-worn negotiating tactic, but there are no negotiations taking place. This type of behavior only allows already massive distrust to mushroom further, and it illuminates the worst impulses on both sides. General concerns about the Temple Mount status quo or development in Area C may be justified, but they are used to defend actions whose justifications are a lot more questionable when they automatically presume that every gain for one side is a loss for the other.