Shoring Up the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade
Shoring Up the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade
The Middle East Could Still Explode
The Middle East Could Still Explode
A view through an access archway towards the Dome of the Rock, one of the Muslim sacred places on Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
A view through an access archway towards the Dome of the Rock, one of the Muslim sacred places on Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Impact Note / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Shoring Up the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade

Defusing conflict over Jerusalem’s holiest site.

Even the name of Jerusalem’s holiest site causes fundamental disagreement. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, for Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. So when the Holy Esplanade looked set to become an Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint once again in 2014-2015, International Crisis Group raised the alarm and set out to forge some common ground in the notoriously intractable conflict.

Our steady flow of ideas for incremental ways forward in this tangible, vital microcosm of the conflict had a real, positive impact, more productive in some ways than grand plans to solve the whole century-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute

This ancient site’s role at the epicentre of the conflict had been a recurrent theme in Crisis Group’s analysis for years, and in 2013 Crisis Group’s Israel/Palestine analyst Ofer Zalzberg began delving deeper. We were among the first to detect that the informal, deliberately opaque arrangement governing access to and use of the Esplanade was under strain, feeding violence in Jerusalem and at times more widely in the West Bank.

As tensions at the site increased during the second half of 2014, Zalzberg began advocating for a package of changes: Israel should empower the Jordanian “Waqf” (Islamic trust) administration of the Esplanade; Israel and Jordan should include Palestinians in the management of the site; rabbis and imams should speak out against controversial acts by some Jews and Muslims respectively; and Israel’s police should end its ­“dilution” policy of limiting entry to Palestinians based on age and gender.

Senior Israel/Palestine Analyst Ofer Zalzberg (left) makes a point on the Holy Esplanade to expert Jeff Seul, co-chair of the Peace Appeal Foundation and a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. CRISIS GROUP/Augustin Nicolescou

Zalzberg’s analysis and recommendations were cited in at least a dozen media articles, and detailed in a 10 November 2014 commentary after Israel’s closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims threatened to trigger all-out confrontation that month. Three days later, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah publicly stated their commitment to the Status Quo, the informal arrangement governing the site for the past century. Secretly, they agreed to a package of quiet understandings regarding the site’s administration in order to calm violence. These included, as we had been advocating, empowerment of the Jordanian Waqf, ending the dilution policy and augmenting Waqf’s actions regarding would-be stone throwers.

Confrontations diminished in early 2015, as Jordanian-Israeli understandings were implemented, police avoided categorically blocking young worshippers from the site, and a leading settler national-religious rabbi picked up our idea of a rabbinical working group to make Jewish access less threatening to Muslims. Eran Tzidkiyahu, a Jerusalem specialist with the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank, wrote to us that “you were the first to point out the Israeli-Jordanian possibility and create a public debate about it”.

Our work also gave new impetus to a new, more neutral name for the site, artificial at first but acceptable to both sides. The term “Holy Esplanade” (or similar) had occasionally been used before in our own and academic publications, but after we started highlighting it in report headlines, op-eds, advocacy messaging and events, this non-partisan appellation began to gain traction. While we are not proposing that others use this neutral term, in early 2015 the foreign ministries of Germany, Norway and several other countries adopted it, as did prominent local and international journalists and experts.

You were the first to point out the Israeli-Jordanian possibility and to create a public debate about it.

In June 2015, when Crisis Group published a full report on The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, the relative calm on the Esplanade was still marred by tension and mistrust. Palestinians, entirely excluded from management of the site, remained highly suspicious of both Israel’s and Jordan’s intentions, and the mere sight of religious Jews on the Esplanade evoked Muslim fears of division of the site by Israel. In our report we spelled out the religious and societal changes underway on both sides that would make it more and more difficult for Israel to contain escalations and maintain arrangements that had kept things calm since 1967. Above all, we issued an early warning: that the November 2014 understandings were eroding, and significant violence would ensue.

Our report studied all sides’ approaches to the three main areas increasingly in dispute: access, prayer, and public works and archaeology. We made evidence-based arguments against the more incendiary accusations, for instance that Jordanian maintenance work was destroying Jewish artefacts or that the Israeli government was plotting to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. We explained how leaderships on both sides felt in fact that the current arrangements regarding construction and maintenance were sufficient and adequate – in direct contrast with their public rhetoric and prevailing public perceptions and fears. Our recommendations included specific measures for both sides to block provocateurs and restore communication, coordination and trust. We also argued for an urgent buttressing of the Status Quo.

The southern and eastern façades, and the much-contested foundations, of Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade. PHOTO: Rob Bye

Our new thinking immediately was embraced by a long front-page story in the leading Israeli daily Haaretz, a front-page story in Walla, Israel’s largest online news portal, and several other outlets in English, Hebrew, Arabic and German. High-profile ­Palestinian media activist Daoud Kuttab wrote a lengthy article in Al-Monitor on our “well-researched” and “unprecedented in-depth study”. The Christian Science Monitor published a whole editorial praising our “refreshing” and “bold and counterintuitive approach”. Zalzberg published a widely shared op-ed in the Times of Israel in English and news1 in Hebrew.

The manager of the Al-Aqsa compound, Najeh Bkerat, told associates that he welcomed the report. An Israeli non-profit embraced our recommendation to set up an unprecedented intra-religious working group of national religious rabbis to focus on the Esplanade, and invited Zalzberg to participate. Our analysis of Jewish religious schools of thought regarding the esplanade was integrated into a respected Palestinian think-tank publication and disseminated broadly among Arab elites in the region – a rare achievement given the ­contention around Jewish attachment to the site.

Our report also resonated with international stakeholders. The section on the Esplanade in the European Union’s annual Heads of Mission report on East Jerusalem relied heavily on ­materials provided by Crisis Group. Officials working for the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process drew on our input when preparing reports about the Esplanade for the UN Security Council. As Western embassies felt empowered to speak up more on the issue, France’s consul general organised a special round table for the launch of our report.

After violence erupted at the site in September 2015, Crisis Group’s sustained engagement with the management of the Esplanade proved vital. The four access-related commitments at the core of the November 2014 understandings had broken down. Our advocacy to restore them fed decision making on all sides and relative calm at the Esplanade was restored within weeks. But the understandings that underpinned it were being misunderstood, unappreciated and at times intentionally mischaracterised. A briefing, How to Preserve the Fragile Calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, published in April 2016, two weeks before the next big moment of potential tension at Passover, made the four commitments public in detail and compellingly demonstrated how it was both Israel’s and Jordan’s violations of their own commitments that resulted in the escalation.

You helped our internal debate have clarity on the advantages of continuing with the policy of respecting the understandings [on the Holy Esplanade’s Status Quo].

Publishing the understandings had a de-escalatory effect. As we expected, Prime Minister Netanyahu denied making such commitments. But as we hoped, his supporters came out into the open to defend the policy, which they said demonstrated his restraint. Palestinians were reassured by reading the commitments, which showed that Jordan does act to defend the site and that Israel does set limits on its own behaviour. On the eve of Passover, Haaretz published an editorial endorsing our “comprehensive report”; pro-Islamist Al Jazeera covered the briefing with a long piece echoing the same advice.

Unusually, the briefing was received as balanced and objective by members of Israel’s Islamic movement, leading Jordanian and Israeli leaders, Temple activists and Waqf officials alike. Jewish Temple activists asked to be briefed by Ofer on the geopolitical context of the site’s management. Israel’s internal security minister read the report and asked Crisis Group to brief his policy team ahead of Ramadan; ministry ­officials even thanked Zalzberg after he published an op-ed that shot down Netanyahu’s claim that the holiday calm was exclusively the result of banning the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic movement from the site. “You helped our internal debate have clarity on the advantages of continuing with the policy of respecting the understandings”, one told him.

The overall Arab-Israeli conflict may take a long time to resolve. But during the 2016 Passover holiday itself, Israel and Jordan implemented the commitments more tightly than ever, leading to unprecedented calm on Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade.

With new ideas, impartiality and sustained dedication to finding compromises, small steps forward on even the areas of deepest dispute are possible.

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