Amman, Jordan — The latest crisis over one of the most combustible spots in the Middle East has been defused for now, but has pushed the leaders of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians into tougher positions that could trigger new confrontations. The standoff over a Jerusalem shrine holy to Muslims and Jews also signaled that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shifting further from what was once seen as a territorial dispute toward a religious one.
WHAT STARTED IT?
On July 14, three Arab assailants opened fire from the walled compound at Israeli police guards, killing two. The shooting left Israeli police scrambling for ways to screen worshippers for weapons as they enter the Muslim-run site through eight gates.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a police recommendation to install metal detectors — reportedly over objections from Israel’s military and a domestic security agency.
The new measures stoked Muslim fears that Israel is trying to expand control over the site under the guise of security — a charge Israel denies. Palestinians in Jerusalem, led by senior Muslim clerics, began staging mass street prayers in protest, four Palestinians were killed in street clashes with Israeli troops and a Palestinian killed three members of an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement.
Tensions ebbed after Israel removed the metal detectors and other devices earlier this week.
SIDELINED PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT
Mahmoud Abbas, who runs autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, was in China and his return home a week into the crisis reinforced perceptions among many Palestinians that he is out of touch. Trying to assert a leadership role, Abbas announced a suspension of security coordination with Israel until the situation at the shrine is restored to what it was before July 14.
For years, Abbas’ forces worked with Israel to foil attacks by militants in the West Bank, often acting against a shared foe, the Islamic militant Hamas. Such mutually beneficial cooperation, though unpopular among Palestinians, survived many crises and failed efforts to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967.
Abbas threatened in the past to end security coordination, but never followed through. If he now restores such ties, he risks further harm to his domestic standing. If he doesn’t, Israel’s right-wing government could retaliate and threaten the survival of his Palestinian Authority.
The crisis highlighted Abbas’ fading influence in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. He also risks being cut off completely from Gaza, the territory he lost to Hamas in 2007. In recent weeks, Hamas and a former Abbas-aide-turned rival, Mohammed Dahlan, forged a Gaza power-sharing deal that would open the blockaded territory to Egypt and further weaken ties with the West Bank.
Abbas, 82, was briefly hospitalized Saturday for what his office said was a routine checkup, but it also served as a reminder of his advanced age and lack of a successor.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER UNDER FIRE
Netanyahu was lambasted by all sides in Israel.
The center-left accused him of making hasty decisions at a volatile site — the third holiest in Islam and the most sacred on in Judaism — that has triggered major rounds of Israeli-Palestinian violence, including one involving Netanyahu in the mid-1990s.
Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist rivals, key to the survival of his coalition, said he capitulated to Arab pressure and effectively encouraged Palestinians to push for more concessions.
Netanyahu responded with a flurry of tough statements.
He ordered the resumption of plans to build a new West Bank settlement and reportedly gave the green light to draft legislation to bring several West Bank settlements under Jerusalem’s jurisdiction. He vowed to “kick Al Jazeera out of Israel,” accusing the Qatar-based satellite station of inciting violence over the shrine crisis. And he called for the death penalty — not imposed by Israel for more than half a century — for last week’s killer of the Israeli family.
Even if it’s mostly rhetoric, Netanyahu’ statements suggest that fending off his ultra-nationalist challengers is more important to him than calming the atmosphere. As both Netanyahu and Abbas harden positions, chances of the Trump administration — itself embroiled in turmoil — being able to revive peace talks seem close to zero.
JORDAN’S ANGRY MONARCH
King Abdullah II publicly vented his anger about what he called Netanyahu’s “provocative” behavior. Such harsh words from an Arab leader known for his measured tone were prompted by twin crises between the two countries and signaled delicate ties had taken a hit.
Abdullah, Muslim custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, was involved in trying to defuse tensions there when he faced another complication: On Sunday, a guard at the Israeli Embassy in Jordan shot dead two Jordanians after one attacked him with a screw driver.
After a phone call between the king and Netanyahu, the guard returned to Israel and Israel removed the metal detectors. The sequence of events suggested a horse trade with problematic optics for Abdullah that might have been forgotten quickly — had Netanyahu not given a hero’s welcome to the guard and inflamed long-running resentment against Israel in Jordan.
Jordan has since charged the guard with murder, demanded he be tried in Israel and issued a veiled threat — through an unidentified official quoted by Jordanian media — that Israel’s ambassador would not be allowed to return to Jordan until the guard is held accountable.
Israel and Jordan share strategic security interests, but any open cooperation at this time might not be tolerated by the Jordanian public. Abdullah already faces other threats to Jordan’s stability, including rising unemployment and spillover from regional conflicts.
FROM LAND DISPUTE TO HOLY WAR?
Recent events made it clear that the conflict in the Holy Land is no longer just a territorial dispute that can be resolved through creative partition ideas. Such efforts ran aground a decade ago, and the absence of a solution has given a bigger role to the religious component. The showdown over shrine was increasingly being framed as a zero sum game between religions.
After Israel captured the shrine in 1967, it left the administration in Muslim hands to avoid a conflagration with the Muslim world. The arrangement held into the 1990s, when more rabbis challenged a long-standing religious ban on Jews entering the site.
Increased visits by Jews — even if Israel enforces a Jewish prayer ban at the compound — have spooked Muslims, reviving fears of purported Israeli takeover attempts.
In the past two weeks, Palestinian protesters chanted Islamic not nationalist slogans. “A nation led by Prophet Muhammad will not be defeated,” was one of the rallying cries.
Laub, the AP bureau chief in Jordan, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987.