Why Netanyahu blinked first during Jerusalem showdown

Sunday 06/08/2017
Sensitivities. A Palestinian man walks past Israeli policemen in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 28. (AFP)

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.”