Why Netanyahu blinked first during Jerusalem showdown
London- The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to backtrack from his government’s new security measures in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound raises questions on what brought about the U-turn.
In a poll of Israeli Jews, 77% of respondents said they thought Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw recently installed metal detectors and security cameras at the holy site amounted to “capitulation.”
Members of his right-wing coalition, as well as media commentators who normally support Netanyahu, said the move was surrendering to the Palestinians.
“There is a strong sense of humiliation, especially among the (Israeli) right wing,” Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think-tank told Agence France-Presse.
The Israeli climb-down was viewed by Palestinians as a “small victory in the long battle for freedom,” in the words of Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki at an extraordinary meeting at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul.
There were no visible signs of pressure from Israel’s closest ally, the United States, to scrap the new measures, despite claims by Jordan that the Trump administration played a “key role” in defusing the latest crisis.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Israel’s decision to remove the security equipment was entirely its own. “Israel’s security is among our top priorities. We would never pressure Israel into making a security decision for political purposes,” said Nauert.
In a leaked conversation he had with congressional interns, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, defended Israel’s instalment of metal detectors as “not an irrational thing to do” and accused the Palestinians of incitement.
Criticism from the Israeli centre-left or from Tel Aviv’s regional foes is unlikely to lead Netanyahu to reverse his decision, certainly not at the expense of making him look weak and unpopular. The same can be said of the calls for calm made by allies in the region. So why did the Israeli prime minister change his mind?
Netanyahu defended the decision by saying that, despite its unpopularity, it was in the best interest of Israel’s security. Israeli media reported that Israel’s intelligence agencies weren’t consulted before the metal detectors were installed.
“I listen to the sensitivities of the public, I understand their feelings, I know that the decision we took is not an easy one,” Netanyahu said. “At the same time, as prime minister of Israel, as the one who carries the burden of Israel’s security on his shoulders, I am obliged to take decisions in a calm and considered way. I do that with a view to the big picture.”
Israel enacted the new security measures after Palestinian gunmen killed three Israeli policemen on July 14. Three Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank were later killed by a Palestinian knife-attacker, who was apprehended. Seven Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.
Higher death tolls from both sides had not forced Israeli officials to reverse their decisions in previous conflicts or during clashes with the Palestinians but the Jerusalem tensions appeared to be the start of something bigger.
The mass protests of Palestinian Jerusalemites, as well as the boycott of Muslim worshippers from praying inside the holy site, did not appear to be changing after 14 days.
Although all Palestinian factions vocally supported the protests, no political leadership was calling the shots. The protesters turned to members of Jerusalem’s religious community for guidance on how to respond to the Israeli measures.
“East Jerusalem’s 350,000 residents have for years been leaderless, as Israel prevents the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah from having any serious engagement with them,” wrote Daoud Kuttab in Al-Monitor. This makes any Israeli pressure on the Palestinian Authority over Jerusalem futile.
Due to the sensitive nature of the holy sites, Israel’s security measures drew widespread condemnation from people in the region who have been preoccupied with their own national problems. “History books will also credit (Netanyahu) with the singular achievement of unifying the Arab and Muslim worlds against Israel and the Jewish people,” wrote Akiva Eldar in Al-Monitor.
“For years, the Palestinians have been trying with very limited success to unify the Arab and Muslim worlds around their struggle for the right to self-determination,” said Eldar. It appears that, for at least 14 days, Netanyahu had changed that.
Widespread public anger at the security measures in Jerusalem led some of Israel’s allies to either harden their rhetoric or speak out against Tel Aviv. This could have threatened Israel’s regional security.
“If relations with the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and even further afield are a key to Israeli security in the long term, then every iota of calming tensions in Jerusalem has to be an equal key to not upsetting those relations,” wrote Seth J. Frantzman in the Jerusalem Post.
“Many countries in the region may not see Israel as their enemy, but they see instability in Jerusalem as closely tied to their own citizens who care deeply about the Haram al-Sharif.”