Tel Aviv — The conference at the end of last month was meant as a 20th anniversary celebration of Israel and Jordan’s peace treaty, but the situation on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem prompted Walid Obeidat, Jordan’s ambassador, to throw a little cold water on the festivities.
Rising tension between right-wing Jewish activists and Arab worshipers over access to the holy plaza in the Old City had rippled around the Middle East in recent weeks, as the contested city grapples with months of chronic unrest. And Jordan, which is recognized in the peace treaty with Israel as the custodian of the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount, didn’t let it pass without comment.
“Jordan expects all attempts and calls to alter the status quo in the Haram Al Sharif, Aqsa Mosque to be stopped,” he said at the Oct. 26 event, referring to the Temple Mount area as the “Muslim Noble Sanctuary.” “If allowed to continue, it will imperil the treaty.”
The turmoil only escalated. Three days later, a motorcycle gunman fired several bullets into Yehuda Glick, an American-born Temple Mount activist as he emerged from a conference he had organized on the topic. In response, Israeli security authorities completely shut access to the Temple Mount to all visitors for the first time in 14 years — angering both Jews and Muslims.
The dozens of security guards posted at entryways to the Temple Mount prompted Palestinians in the Old City to gripe that Israel was cutting them off from their holy site while allowing Jews access to the Western Wall. The Jerusalem Mufti called for international intervention to break the Israeli hold on the Temple Mount, while someone nearby called for “Islamic armies” to do it.
Temple Mount activists claimed that Jews were being penalized for the actions of the would-be assassin — allegedly a former security prisoner with links to Islamic Jihad. The proper response to the attempted assassination, right wing politicians argued, would have been to expand access for Jewish activists who are placed under tight restrictions and scrutiny.
“It’s not understood and not appreciated,” said David Ha’ivri, a Temple Mount activist and colleague of Glick. “If they are really concerned with violence on the Temple Mount, they need to deal with the people they suspect of acting in a violent way.”
Stepping aside from family at the intensive care ward at Shaare Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem, Yaakov Glick said he agreed with his brother’s call for Jewish prayer even if there is fallout. Shying away from the Temple Mount because of threats would be akin to stopping the Jerusalem light rail from running through Arab neighborhoods because of rock throwing, he said.
“The simple law is that anybody can go up on the Temple Mount as long as it doesn’t instigate any violence. … It is a policy, but polices can be changed,” the brother said.
“You can put your head into the ground. … But we believe we have rights there. I agree with my brother’s cause,” he added.
The clashing demands on the Israeli government highlight the bind that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in over the Temple Mount as security forces struggle to calm four months of festering violence in Israel.
On the one hand, many leading politicians from his Likud party seem to be increasingly sympathetic to activists like Glick and want the government to grant increased access. Temple Mount activist groups called for a mass ascent by supporters on Wednesday morning with leading rabbis and Knesset members.
On the other hand, the rising tensions around the Temple Mount have got the attention of the entire Middle East even though many Arab countries are mired in domestic strife: in Lebanon, Druze leader Walid Joublatt tweeted that right-wing Israelis “have already invaded [the al Aqsa Mosque] like they invaded Hebron.”
But the prime minister is most concerned with Jordan, which maintains tight security collaboration with Israel and has gas and water deals as well, despite a chilly outward relationship. In the days before the 20th anniversary of the peace treaty, King Abdallah likened Israeli religious hardliners to ISIS — a remark that offended many in Israel.
The remark by Ambassador Obeidat was likely formulated by the monarchy, said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, who said that Jordan had escalated public rhetoric against Israel in response to the deterioration in Jerusalem.
Though disturbing, such remarks are to be expected because of Jordan’s status as the formal custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, he said. Jordan could not remain silent when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called on Muslims to “defend” the Al Aqsa Mosque by any means necessary.
Abbas was slammed by Netanyahu this week after the Palestinian president sent condolences to the family of the 32-year-old suspected shooter, Moutaz Hijaizi, killed by police last Thursday in a pre-dawn clash after the attack on Glick.
Despite the appearance of tension between Israel and Jordan, the Israeli prime minister has kept up a steady dialogue with the monarchy. A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Netanyahu traveled secretly to Jordan to discuss Jerusalem last weekend. Even if that’s not accurate, Eran said the two leaders speak regularly by phone and Israeli envoys are frequent visitors to Jordan.
“Jordan is in a delicate situation right now. They haven’t been invaded or attacked by the ISIS extremists. And in order to not give them ammunition, they have to still come across as the protector of the Temple Mount,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
“The king understands what’s going on here, he understand that there’s slippage and there’s more support for these movements,” he added.
But Housing Minister Uri Ariel escalated the rhetoric, writing on his Facebook page last Friday that the Jordanians had “forgot” who won the 1967 war and that the Temple Mount and Jerusalem are under Israeli sovereignty “just like Amman is under total Jordanian control. They would do well to absorb that,” he wrote.
That prompted a statement by the prime minister calling on his cabinet to moderate their remarks in order to allow tensions to cool down. He reiterated once again that the status quo at the religious site would not change.
Netanyahu has acted like the “responsible adult” regarding the Temple Mount in the face of pressure from allies to change the status quo, said Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and activist for a shared Jerusalem.
But that is likely to risk a political erosion with his supporters, said Ha’ivri.
“Netanyahu is trying through King Abdallah … is to speak to the Muslim world, to those who are trying to ignite a fight over this issue. He’s trying to say that, ‘I hear your concern, and don’t worry everything will be alright,’” he said.
“Netanyahu should be worried, because there are a lot of people in Likud, and [in] his voter pool, that want to let him open up the Temple mount to prayer. So he’s going to have to figure it out.”