The Temple Mount Affair: What Has Changed?


Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 24

Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greets King Abdullah II of Jordan in Ramallah.

  • This summer’s tensions around the Temple Mount reflected the gap between the Israeli-Western discourse, which focused on the security problems, and the Palestinian-Islamic discourse, which is rooted in the belief that Israel wants to take control of the Temple Mount and saw the security moves as part of this plot.
  • This unbridgeable gap prevented the possibility of compromise, and Israel’s decision to restore the situation to its former status (taking down the metal detectors) was interpreted as a Palestinian achievement and an Israeli embarrassment. This established a situation in which Israel cannot take substantial security measures on the Temple Mount without coordination and agreement with the PA and Jordan.
  • The Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas, who justifiably claims ownership of the success, are trying to leverage the achievement of the removal of the metal detectors in front of the United States, Hamas, and the Palestinian public in the PA.
  • On the regional level, the solution to the tensions represents an achievement for the pragmatic Arab elements, and especially Jordan. Turkey and Iran failed in their attempts to use the events to embarrass the pragmatists and exacerbate the tensions, hoping to win points in the regional arena and strengthen their ally Hamas.
  • The July 14, 2017, attack on the Temple Mount, which led to the series of protests and riots, as well as the terrorist attack in the community of Halamish, demonstrated the massive influence that the libel “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has on Palestinian youth.
  • The Palestinians are caught up in a sense of achievement, which inspires them to harden their positions. Such an atmosphere does not encourage a Palestinian willingness to show the flexibility needed to resume a peace process that will go along with Israel’s critical security requirements.

The visit by Jordan’s King Abdullah to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on August 7, 2017, marked the finale of the latest chapter of the conflict over the Temple Mount. The visit was intended to enable the king and the Palestinian leader to flaunt their achievements and translate them into political assets vis-à-vis their domestic and foreign rivals. This document presents the main points that emerge from the events.

The Differences between the Israeli-Western Discourse and the Palestinian-Muslim Discourse

At the root of the latest flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians/Islamic world is the difference in how the issue is defined. From Israel’s standpoint, the problem revealed in the July 14, 2017, terror attack on the Temple Mount in which two Israeli policemen were murdered by three terrorists from Umm al-Fahm is first and foremost a security problem. One of the ways to address it is to improve security at the location, and metal detectors and security cameras were naturally chosen as means that would contribute to that goal. The talk about the security issue sounded reasonable to Western and, especially, American ears; this is how the whole world deals with problems of this kind at airports and even (as Israeli public diplomacy emphasized) at Islamic and Christian holy places in the Arab world.

The catch is that in the Palestinian and Muslim discourse the central issue is the need to combat what they believe to be guiding the Israeli policy, namely, the Jewish (or Zionist or settler) effort to take over the holy compound that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and to destroy the mosque and the Dome of the Rock so as to turn the Temple Mount into a place of Jewish prayer. Hence, the Palestinians and the Muslims did not see the installation of the metal detectors as a measure to improve security, but instead, as an obvious way to prepare the groundwork for changing the status quo and thereby advancing the objective that they ascribe to the Jews.

Given the lack of a prior Israeli attempt to create a bridging interface between the two narratives, it comes as no surprise that the government’s decision sparked a confrontation. It is by no means certain that, even if such an attempt had been made, the longed-for bridge could then have been found. The gaps in perception on this matter between Israel and the Muslim and Palestinian world are huge, and the view of Israel as devious has been so deeply rooted in the Palestinian-Muslim narrative for 100 years that even if such an effort had been made it may well have failed. Its failure, however, might at least have prompted a reconsideration of installing the metal detectors and the cameras before that step was taken.

The fact that Israel eventually agreed to reverse its decision on the security devices also reflects the cultural and perceptual gaps between the sides. For Israel, the decision was meant to prevent an escalation and enable a return to normal life through a sort of compromise on the security issue (which could be solved in the future if more sophisticated devices could be found). The Americans, as Jared Kushner told congressional interns, saw it the same way. In his view, by convincing Israel to roll back the decision, the United States had scored an achievement; it had been able to talk to both sides and calm the tensions. In Palestinian and Muslim eyes, however, the Israeli concession was something else. On the one hand, it was inevitable, since a Palestinian-Muslim concession on such a sensitive matter would have been inconceivable in Arab eyes; on the other, it bolstered the Palestinian narrative because the Israeli capitulation signified that Israel was prepared to take the Palestinian-Muslim narrative seriously, confirming – in the Palestinians’ view – that what motivated Israel were not security considerations.

In sum, in contrast to the Israeli-Western practical approach, the Muslim culture rejects any compromise on such issues. 

The Temple Mount and the Struggle in the Muslim World: Who Won and Who Did Not

The Temple Mount events occurred against the backdrop of the intensifying crisis in the Islamic and Arab world between, on the one hand, the Saudi-led pragmatic elements, and on the other, first, the Sunni “realistic radicals” – Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood (in contrast to “hardline radicals” such as ISIS) – and second, the radical Shiites led by Iran and Hizbullah. President Trump’s support for the pragmatists has boosted their status and fostered a crisis between them and Qatar, in the midst of which the Temple Mount events erupted.

The imbroglio surrounding the Mount had an impact in two spheres – the regional one and the intra-Palestinian one.

On the regional level, Jordan and Saudi Arabia tried to lower the flames and reach an agreement with Israel whereby it would remove the security devices and forestall an ongoing escalation that their rivals would likely exploit. Turkey and Iran, however, tried to use the events to embarrass the pragmatists and exacerbate the tensions to win points in the regional arena and strengthen their ally Hamas in the internal arena. (For Turkey, another aim was to shore up the Erdogan regime’s status domestically). Turkey’s encouragement of the Palestinian protest and Turkish visits to the Temple Mount and Iran’s direct support for the demonstrators can be understood in this light. 

Three hundred Turkish demonstrators on the Temple Mount, 2015

Turkish activists on the Temple Mount

Ultimately, the agreement that was reached was an achievement particularly for Jordan, which took a leadership position among the Arab states based on its responsibility for the Temple Mount and its peace treaty with Israel, and an achievement for the Palestinians headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Jordan succeeded to get Israel to concede on the security devices after an incident involving an Israeli security guard who shot an attacker and innocent man in Amman, an incident which unleashed an internal protest and challenged the regime. Saudi Arabia, too, apparently played a role in creating the conditions for an agreement.

Turkey and Iran had to accept the settlement that the pragmatic elements and Abbas achieved, thereby acknowledging the limits of their influence on what happens in the Palestinian arena in general and in Jerusalem in particular.  The “radicals,” including Turkey and groups such as Hamas, Hizb al Tahrir, and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, are ostensibly backed by the a majority of east Jerusalem residents and regular mosque worshippers. This seems to have frustrated the Turks, who kept trying to stir the pot even after the agreement was reached until they realized that this effort, too, was futile.

Within the internal Palestinian arena, the crisis occurred amid the tension between the Abbas-led PA and Hamas (Abbas had taken a series of major financial and administrative steps against Hamas in Gaza) along with the declining popular support for Abbas, as well as American pressures to cease paying salaries to terrorists and their families. Abbas managed to exploit the events to improve his status and to deflect the American pressure.

Abbas Wins

Through Abbas’ formal control of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, he made use of the Mufti Muhammad Hussein (whom Abbas himself appointed) to dictate the nature of the struggle and set the conditions for ending it. It was Abbas who decided that the struggle would have the “popular resistance” nature that he favors, meaning it would mainly involve prayers and demonstrations with limited violence and without firearms. Abbas deployed protestors and ostensibly punitive measures against Israel such as halting security coordination and civilian contacts. It was also he who insisted that Israel remove all the security devices and did not settle for Jordan’s achievement in getting only the metal detectors removed. And it was Abbas who, after he got Israel to accept his terms, announced via the Mufti standing beside him that prayer on the Temple Mount had resumed.

Mufti Muhammad Hussein meeting with the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas

Mufti Muhammad Hussein meeting with the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas

Abbas saw Israel’s capitulation in revoking the security measures as a morale-booster for the Palestinians and as a great personal achievement. He has hastened to translate it into serveral operational goals: stepped-up pressure on Hamas; a change for the better in his public status, among other things by hosting King Abdullah in Ramallah and convening the Palestinian National Council as a show of support for his leadership; an attempt to extract further gains from Israel by posing additional conditions for renewing the security coordination; and an easing of the American pressure, while criticizing the new Administration for its conduct toward the Palestinians thus far.

Indeed, since the events began, the U.S. Administration has not stated what it expects of the Palestinians regarding stopping the payments to terrorists. It is also preparing to send its envoys to the region once again, in a delegation, the Palestinians hope, which may be more congenial to the Palestinians and won’t make demands of them. 

Involvement of Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians in Terror Attacks

The events revealed not only how much Palestinians believe in the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” libel, but also how this belief affects young Palestinians’ preparedness to commit terror attacks amid incessant incitement on the Al-Aqsa issue across the Palestinian political spectrum.

Indeed, the terror attack that ignited the events was not the first to be perpetrated by Israeli Arabs in recent years, including young Israeli Arab men from the Wadi Ara/Umm al-Fahm area. Nevertheless, it was an unusual attack. For the first time in many years, it involved a relatively extensive organization that planned a very complex operation at the most sensitive spot, making use of co-conspirators. Also, the Israeli security services did not manage to detect what was happening and thwart the attack. Beyond the intelligence and security failure, this may also have been a worrisome perceptual failure: the security services did not take into account that such an attack could be carried out by Israeli Arabs, and hence were not prepared to foil it.

Usually, almost all the Palestinian factions oppose terror attacks by Israeli Arabs. As the Palestinian leadership sees it, each component of Palestinian society has its own task as part of the ongoing struggle against Zionism. The Israeli Arabs’ task includes holding fast to the Palestinian soil inside Israel proper and influencing Israeli decision-making processes so that they will dovetail with Palestinian interests (whether through the political system, as Abbas favors, or outside of it, as Hamas favors). Most of all, the Israeli Arabs’ mission involves negating Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people, aiding the effort to vilify Israel as part of the international struggle against its legitimacy, and assisting the Palestinians in the territories economically and sometimes also in building their terror capabilities by providing funds and equipment.

At the same time, from the moment an attack is carried out, its perpetrators become part of the fighters of Palestinian society, and if they are killed during the attack they merit to be called shahids – those who die on behalf of Allah, Islam, and the Palestinian national goals, with their families entitled to monthly payments from the PA. The heavily attended funeral of the Temple Mount terrorists in their town Umm al-Fahm in the heart of Israel, amid cries of adulation, reflected this outlook along with the strength of the radical Islamic elements among the Israeli Arabs and particularly in Umm al-Fahm. Note that, within this overall mindset, Abbas expressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu his opposition to the attack, and the Israeli Arab leadership, which is close to the PA, also said it opposed it but refrained from condemning the deed.  Hamas elements, however, praised it lavishly. 

The stabbing attack in Halamish where three Israelis were killed at their Sabbath evening meal was committed by a resident of the village of Kubar in the territories. Not only was the attack not condemned by Palestinian or Arab Israeli leaders, but no opposition to it was expressed. This despite the fact that it did not jibe with the form of struggle that the Palestinian leadership had recommended at that stage, which was not supposed to include murderous attacks. The attack was, however, compatible with the notion of “popular struggle,” which permits and even sometimes encourages attacks without firearms by Palestinians who live in the PA. The perpetual incitement in general, and on the Al-Aqsa issue in particular, ensures that in times of crisis there will be someone who decides to carry out an attack. Palestinian law stipulates that the perpetrator, who remained alive and will presumably serve a life term in an Israeli prison, will also enjoy the largess that the PA awards to imprisoned terrorists, including a high salary.

As long as the basic incitement continues and the international community is uninterested in taking up the cudgels against it, the terror attacks that it foments will probably also continue, committed mainly by PA residents but sometimes also by Israeli Arabs.

How the Events Have Affected Israel’s Status on the Temple Mount

In hindsight, it may appear that the Israeli zigzag did not cause lasting and irreversible damage to Israel’s status on the Temple Mount or to its relations with the different power brokers. The status quo on the Mount was preserved, and because Israel had no intention to alter it in the first place, its own status sustained no evident damage. As in the past, Israel continues to set the security rules at the site, and it is Israel that determines and applies the age limits of the worshippers in line with security considerations.

However, such a summation gives short shrift to the new reality that has emerged. Israel has acknowledged the limits of its ability to stipulate the rules of the game, even when it views such rules as pertaining only to the security domain. It has also recognized the status of the PA and Jordan as actors capable of deploying popular demonstrations in the streets in a controlled, competent fashion, meaning Israel must consult with them in advance before making any move that affects the Mount. The one who has achieved the most is Abbas, and he is wasting no time in leveraging his gains against Israel within the Palestinian sphere, and vis-à-vis the United States and the regional arena. With regard to the United States, Abbas is benefiting from the strengthening of the pragmatic camp in the U.S. Administration, which is taking positions of power at the expense of the more ideological officials who are being pushed aside.

Muslim worshipers outside of the Temple Mount and the metal detectors.

Muslim worshipers outside of the Temple Mount and the metal detectors.

Muslim worshipers outside of the Temple Mount and the metal detectors.

This state of affairs highlights the tension in Israeli-Jordanian relations. Israel expected that, given Jordan’s interest in stability, it would lead the way to a solution entailing mutual concessions by the sides. But such hopes turned out to be exaggerated even before the attack on the Israeli security guard in Amman. The arrangement that enabled the Israeli diplomatic staff’s departure revealed the sensitivity of the situation on the ground within Jordan itself, which curtails the king’s freedom of action. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public gesture to the security guard, well before the incident had been fully investigated, further heightened the distress of the Jordanian regime, which, to calm the winds, made the visit to Ramallah and set up a joint crisis group with the PA to manage future incidents. Given the tension in the relations, it is apparently convenient for the Jordanians at this point that the Israeli embassy should remain unstaffed. At the same time, Israeli-Jordanian relations are based on a broad range of common interests at the bilateral and regional levels, and probably at the right moment, and once the investigation of the security-guard affair is completed, the Jordanians will allow the resumption of the embassy’s activity. The peace treaty requires it, and the United States will probably demand it.  

Abbas is also leveraging his sense of achievement vis-à-vis Hamas and Egypt. Nevertheless it appears that his efforts to stall the cooperation between Egypt and Hamas failed, and the parties seem determined to promote the deal that will ease Hamas’ plight in Gaza, and contribute to Egypt’s efforts to weaken the Islamic radical groups in Sinai, according to which:

  • Hamas and Egypt would grant some sort of status in Gaza to Abbas’ nemesis Muhammad Dahlan;
  • Hamas would cease its assistance to radical Islamic groups in the Sinai Peninsula;
  • The Egyptians would open the Rafah passage from Gaza to Egypt;
  • The United Arab Emirates, Dahlan’s patron, would get a foothold in Gaza, replacing Qatar as the Strip’s benefactor;
  • Egypt would increase the flow of electricity to the Gaza Strip.

The mounting tension in the internal Palestinian arena, in the context of which Abbas is taking draconian steps against his critics in the PA territories, along with Hamas’ growing distress amid the economic plight in Gaza, and Hamas’ inability to boast of any achievements in the fight against Israel on the Temple Mount, led Hamas to mend fences with Iran and adopt an more confrontational policy toward the PA, with possible repercussions for Israel as well.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two states leading the campaign against the radicals in the Arab arena, particularly Qatar, played a minimal role in defusing the crisis. Their ability to influence the Palestinians is limited as they wage their own struggles at home and near their borders.

The Temple Mount Affair and the Course of the American-Led Diplomatic Process

This overview indicates some important lessons regarding the resumption of American efforts to jumpstart the diplomatic process:

  1. The hope that the pragmatic Arab states will take part in an effort and prepare the groundwork to moderate the Palestinian position does not stand any significant chance of being realized.
  2. The Palestinians are caught up in a sense of achievement, which inspires them to harden their positions. It is in that light that one should view their decision take these three actions: threaten to halt security coordination with Israel while setting conditions for its resumption that go beyond revoking the security measures on the Temple Mount; consider again an appeal to the International Criminal Court in The Hague; and launching an attack on the congressional legislation banning salaries for terrorists imprisoned in Israel. Such an atmosphere does not encourage a Palestinian willingness to renew negotiations without prior conditions.
  3. Changing the tough American approach to the Palestinians taken by President Trump and his envoys so far will only detract from the Administration’s chances to steer a process leading to peace that would meet Israel’s basic requirements. Hence, Israel must make clear to the Administration that the concessions it has made do not reflect a shift in its basic positions.
  4. Had Israel tried to leverage the terrorist attacks against its citizens into pressuring the Palestinians to cease incitement and payments to terrorists and to enlisting pragmatic Arab states with the United States behind the effort, it would have been easier for Israel today to assure that the peace process would proceed in a manner more parallel to its principles.

About Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.