Last week Jerusalem suffered once again from those who would divert those who love her from spiritual to political concerns. When Israeli authorities opened a second entrance to a 2,200-year-old tunnel that runs adjacent to the ancient Temple Mount, Yasser Arafat manipulated the longstanding Muslim fear that the Jews will one day attempt to drive them from the mosques they have built there. He declared that the tunnel was part of a "Zionist plot" to undermine the foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque and usurp the Temple Mount area.
That was an incendiary lie, and Mr. Arafat knew it. The maintenance of all Islamic property rights to the sites and shrines they consider holy has been one great constant of Israeli rule over the Temple Mount since it passed to Israeli rule in June 1967.
Throughout Jerusalem, Israeli policy has been fixed and unchanged. The holy places remain under the religious authorities who possessed them before the 1967 war.
Arafat tapped into a deep well of insecurity about the rights of Islam to the site where Solomon built his temple. Israel's record of respecting these rights has never been accepted at face value. The fear has lingered that one day the Jews will blow up the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque and rebuild the Jewish Temple. Once Arafat unleashed the dormant passion of religious hatred, he could not stop its fury.
'A crime against God'
On Friday, Muhammad Hussein, who delivered the morning sermon at the mosque, proclaimed that the opening of the new entrance to the tunnel was "a crime against God." He appealed to his listeners as a matter of "religious duty" to "defend Al-Aqsa."
The fact that this tunnel, used to bring drinking water to the residents of Jerusalem, was in existence 800 years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad only increases Muslim anxiety about their rights to the Temple Mount.
Arafat's charge let loose powerful anti-Jewish sentiments among many Muslims. In Nablus, a West Bank city no longer under Israeli occupation, Palestinian demonstrators attacked the reputed tomb of Joseph, son of Abraham. Six Israeli soldiers guarding this historic Jewish shrine were killed, and the Palestinian mob who murdered them then set fire to the Hebrew prayer books.
Though the public and the media often appear to have no time for history lessons, it is important to recall that, once before in this century, a similar lie was told to obtain the same result. The speaker was the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. On Aug. 24, 1929, in the midst of an ongoing dispute about Jewish rights to settle in Palestine, he preached in the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa mosque that the mosque needed protection from Jewish attack.
The mob he incited ransacked the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem with violence spreading into the countryside. An Arab band descended on the Jewish community in Hebron, killing 60 and wounding another 50. Jewish life in Hebron abruptly came to an end that day until its revival in the 1970s.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been on the road to a settlement since 1993. Until last week, both sides had energetically, sometimes furiously, argued their respective positions, but they had been careful to keep the religious aspects of their disagreements outside the conference room.
Understanding the indefensible
Mr. Arafat's appeal to religion cannot be defended, but it can be understood. The Netanyahu government is the unhappy and uneasy custodian of agreements that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres negotiated, and though it accepts the agreements as legally binding, it has not been shy in demonstrating its disdain for them.
Arafat and the Palestinians have felt they have no leverage over the new Israeli government. Their appeals to the United States, as well as to Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states in the region to pressure the Israelis have been largely unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has been an incompetent custodian of Palestinian national aspirations. A well-proven record of financial corruption has deterred foreign governments from giving the financial assistance that is vital to improve the Palestinian economy. Matters are made worse by the weakness of the central planning mechanisms.
Reckless with a daughter's future
The authority has yet to give its young people and their parents a sense of hope. Secondary education for teenage Palestinians is in a worse condition today than three years ago. There is almost no classroom construction in Gaza or the West Bank. Without jobs or the prospect of obtaining an education, young Palestinians have become receptive to the radical message of Hamas.
Arafat prides himself on becoming a father in late middle age, and by all accounts he wants to build the foundations of a new Palestinian society for his daughter to enjoy. He has made this goal much harder to achieve by his reckless incitement last week.
*Michael Neiditch is the president of the Jerusalem Foundation Inc. of the United States, an interfaith philanthropy group that seeks to improve the quality of life for all residents of Jerusalem. The views he expresses are his own.