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Don’t Let Symbols Blind You to the Mundane at the Temple Mount
Don’t Let Symbols Blind You to the Mundane at the Temple Mount
Keep the Calm in Lebanon
Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Don’t Let Symbols Blind You to the Mundane at the Temple Mount

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Once again Israeli leaders denounce UNESCO and tell their people with an odd tone of satisfaction: “The whole world is against us; we you told you so!”

Once again the question of the Temple Mount and Jerusalem has been brought before UNESCO. Once again several Arab states – Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan – promote there a draft text that denies the Jewish linkage to the holy site.

And once again Israeli leaders denounce UNESCO and tell their people with an odd tone of satisfaction: “The whole world is against us; we you told you so!” Focusing minutely on the draft’s terminology – does it say “Temple Mount” or “al-Aksa Mosque”? The “Western Wall” or “al-Burak”? “Yerushalayim” or “al-Quds”? – Israeli leaders seem to have forgotten to actually read the text. What does it really say? In a sentence, the resolution, drafted by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, calls to reinstate the “pre- 2000 historical Status Quo.”

Is that good? Is that bad? And what is that status quo anyway? If you can get past the resolution’s lingo – contested to be sure – everyone has something to gain from managing the site according to the pre- 2000 status quo which it suggests.

The escalation following the failure of the Camp David talks and the Second Intifada manifested itself also at the holy site, leading to a volatile, oft-violent equilibrium at the site, from which all sides lose. Until 2000, non-Muslim visitors could purchase entry tickets for NIS 25 from the Jordanian Wakf and enter the two buildings atop the site – the Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. They could enter the Temple Mount compound, also on Saturdays, from three gates, not only one – neither of which can they do today.

The pre-2000 situation was better for Muslims as well – categorical limitations on Muslim entry, based on gender or sex, were rare to nonexistent.

Between 2010 and 2015, with tensions rising at the site, Muslim entry was increasingly curtailed, with access oftentimes limited to men over 40 years of age.

Tourism too has suffered: since 2000, and in particular in recent years as violence at the site became more common, tourists are vanishing from the site. Since 2009 alone the number of tourists has dropped by half and stands today at less than 200,000 tourists a year.

The pre-2000 success was, to no small extent, the product of the relatively tight and successful coordination between Jordan and Israel regarding the management of the site.

The entry of non-Muslim visitors – which happened on Jordanian sufferance, which they did not abuse – contributed to decreasing tensions at the site. Ever since 2000, excluded from access decisions Jordan and the PA have referred to entry of religious Jews as “storming” of the site.

Coordination also used to include coordination of public works, maintenance and preservation of antiquities (including informal coordination with the Israel Antiquities Authority). While cooperation was never completely smooth, today we have reached a situation of such hostility that the Israel Police and Wakf guards clash recurrently, Israel at times arrests Wakf employees and the Israel Antiquities Authority virtually cannot operate at the site.

Names and symbols are of course significant in the conflict. They shape behavior and animate violence.

Until Arab-Israeli peace comes, whether one yearns for or opposes it, Jordanians and Palestinians will most likely continue to refer to the site exclusively as the Aksa Mosque (ignoring the Jewish link to the site) and the government of Israel will most likely continue to refer to the holy city only as Jerusalem (ignoring the Palestinian national link to al-Quds).

Names and symbols are of course significant in the conflict.

They shape behavior and animate violence. The parties will naturally continue to struggle over them but symbolic disagreement should not be allowed to stand in the way of addressing crucial questions about the site’s administration, especially when everyone can benefit and violence can be curbed.

Indeed, prominent Temple activists and (under Amman’s influence) PA officials agree they would like to see the pre- 2000 Status Quo revived. So they have all told me. The sides would gain more from hashing out the differences between them on what precisely this would mean at the site rather than on quarreling over how to name the site in UN documents.

Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Originally published in The American Prospect

The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.

The Middle East has yet another flashpoint: On Sunday, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel traded fire over what had been a mostly quiet border since the 2006 war between them. The clashes came exactly a week after a drone attack in Beirut, which was widely attributed to Israel. The two incidents have brought the two sides closer to the brink of an open conflict. While neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to want war right now, they may be only one miscalculation or technical error away from an escalatory spiral spinning out of control.

Two things are needed to prevent the inadvertent breakout of all-out war: a return to the type of mutual deterrence that has kept the Israel-Lebanon border relatively calm for the past 13 years, and a lessening of tensions in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran.

The attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel.

What exactly was attacked in the southern suburb of Beirut in the early hours of August 25 has yet to be officially established, but many reports identify the target as technical equipment related to Hezbollah's alleged precision-guided missile program, which Israel has vowed to abort. Yet the attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel, the latest of which occurred on the same day as the Beirut blast, and Israel’s long-standing and increasingly open military campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, where it attacked two days before. Immediately after the latest strike near Damascus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Iran has no immunity anywhere,” and that “our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”

Until the drone attack on August 25, Lebanon was a place where Tehran appeared to enjoy just such immunity, thanks to the deterrence created by the missile arsenal and military capabilities of its most potent regional ally, Hezbollah. For its part, the Shia movement had responded to the increasingly threatening Israeli rhetoric directed at its precision-guided missile program by vowing proportional retaliation to any Israeli attack. Indeed, hours after the drone attack, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a speech that the movement's response “may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border.”

Hezbollah was in a bind: Retaliation in kind carries the risk of provoking an even more substantial Israeli response, which in turn could set off an uncontrollable escalation leading to war. This would be devastating for Lebanon, even if the consequences for Israel may also be grave. But refraining from retaliation would reveal Hezbollah's deterrence posture to be a hollow threat, inviting further and more substantial Israeli attacks that may eventually force Hezbollah to choose between submission or war.

Hezbollah's attack on Sunday afternoon, which targeted Israeli military vehicles right across the border, may have been exactly the “calculated strike” that statements attributed to sources inside the movement predicted as the most likely response—one that stays below a threshold that would compel Israel to hit back, while still being substantial enough to reestablish deterrence.

This time round, it looks like the formula has worked. After initial reports of Israeli casualties, official statements asserted that there were none. Israeli media reported that what appeared as the evacuation of a wounded soldier in videos circulating on social media was indeed a staged rescue operation meant to trick Hezbollah into believing they had scored big, and pulling back their launching squad. Either way, neither Hezbollah nor Israel appeared keen on taking the skirmish any further.

Yet the problem with such calculations is that tit-for-tats with missiles and drones are not an exact science. They are far closer to a game of chicken in which he who blinks first loses face, and both find themselves in a war they claim not to seek if neither blinks. And even the best-calibrated operation may go awry through technical error. For instance, if a missile aimed at destroying a military installation were to veer off course and hit a school instead, all bets would be off, and a massive Israeli counterstrike almost certain.

A tacit understanding [...] whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Ever since the 2006 war, Israel and Hezbollah have been watching each other closely and preparing for a next round they hope will never come, while carefully avoiding any move that could transform their limited altercations into outright armed conflict. That caution has now given way to brinkmanship, as both sides are engaging in dangerous acrobatics, framed as deterrence, which push them toward the precipice of war. Their respective external allies, the U.S. and Iran, need to step in to prevent a further escalation that would serve nobody. A tacit understanding, perhaps communicated by a third country with links to both sides (Russia comes to mind), whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Yet while last weekend's skirmish may have been contained successfully, it is but the latest flare-up in the larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Rather than stoking fires in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq and now Lebanon all at the same time, Washington and Tehran should return to the negotiating table to help calm an unstable region that is coming increasingly unstuck.