Jerusalem: Netanyahu seeks to reassure Jordan's king as tensions spike

A day after Jordan recalled its ambassador over Israel's handling of clashes at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, Israel's prime minister called King Abdullah. But Netanyahu's diplomatic options are limited.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israeli police stand near visitors, some Jewish, as they walk on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City November 5, 2014. As Jordan joins a military campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria, tensions in Jerusalem pose a potentially bigger risk to a nation only slightly scathed by the turmoil sweeping the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Jordan’s King temp called Thursday for calm in Jerusalem, a rare display of personal diplomacy that highlighted the air of crisis and need for damage control in the holy city.

The calls came a day after Arab-Israeli violence in Jerusalem reached a new level, with a fatal hit-and-run attack against Jewish pedestrians and a clash between Israeli police and Palestinian stone-throwers at the entrance to the Al Aqsa mosque that prompted Jordan, the steward of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, to recall its ambassador to Israel in protest. In a phone conversation that was confirmed by both governments, the two leaders sought to quell the violence and to patch the all-important regional alliance, which has shown signs of fraying, analysts said.

Earlier Thursday there was another rare statement: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, considered one of the more hawkish members of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, lashed out at right-wing Israeli politicians in the government for inflaming passions around the disputed complex where the mosque is located.

The plaza known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is the holiest site in Judaism and contains Al Aqsa, the third-holiest site in Islam. Some Israeli politicians have been calling on the government to lift its ban on Jews praying at the site, imposed decades ago to prevent friction with Muslims, and have orchestrated visits to the area that Palestinian officials consider highly provocative. The Jordan-affiliated Muslim waqf administers the site, and Netanyahu has assured Jordan repeatedly that there will be no change in the status quo there.

“Jordan is the key ally,’’ said Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, which consults on Middle East security issues. “Reducing tensions with Jordan will transfer to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas.”

Netanyahu-Abbas hostility

But while Jordan, despite the diplomatic protest, continues to share key interests in peace with Israel,  Israel's relations with Mr. Abbas are downright hostile. Netanyahu has focused personal attacks on Abbas throughout the crisis, accusing him of incitement. And a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which many analysts consider a bulwark against violence, is not in the offing.

“Politically it’s challenging. The political tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is quite high after the collapse of the peace process and the Gaza War,’’ says Mike Herzog, a former Israeli negotiator.  “It’s not as if the Israeli and Palestinian leadership can coordinate a de-escalation.”

Yet, despite the enmity between the two governments, the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces maintain critical cooperation in the West Bank, where both see Hamas – which has called for violence there – as a joint enemy. If that cooperation were to falter, it would open the floodgates to a potentially much broader uprising, says the Levantine Group’s Mr. Nisman.

“The Palestinian police are crucial and still in the game,” he says. “They’ve arrested 250 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives in the past couple of mouths. Cooperation of forces is a pillar to security.’’

In Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, where there’s a security vacuum because of the negligence of Israeli authorities and a ban on PA forces, Netanyahu face three forms of festering turmoil, analysts say. There’s tension over access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif; chronic rock-throwing and rioting by youths in Palestinian neighborhoods; and lone attacks like the hit-and-run Wednesday, in which an East Jerusalem resident killed an Israeli border policemen and injured 13.

Lone attacks hardest to prevent

By all accounts, the lone attacks seem to be the most difficult to prevent, because it’s nearly impossible for intelligence forces to guess who will be the next hit-and-run driver.

“There’s no way of preventing at any given juncture, at any given time, injuries from such an attack,’’ acknowledged Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich at the site of the attack on Wednesday.

Between those attacks and the rock-throwing, Mr. Netanyahu is under pressure from Jerusalem residents – who tend to be more right wing – for harsher measures to quell the violence.  Mr. Aharonovich vowed to seek home demolitions for future militant attacks. He also said the drivers of cars used in hit-and-run attacks should be killed at the scene. Israeli police shot and killed the drivers in the Wednesday attack and one two weeks earlier.

But such deaths only stoke more unrest in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where rioting has not ceased since the retaliatory lynching of a Palestinian teen in early July. Israel has deployed some 1,000 police reinforcements, sent in undercover special forces, and flown surveillance balloons in an effort to quell the disturbances.

On Thursday, Haaretz newspaper reported that the police had begun blocking roads between East Jerusalem neighborhoods to clamp down on rioting.

Asaf Hefetz, a former police chief, say that Israel needs to stiffen fines on families for rock-throwing by youths. The Israeli cabinet approved a bill this week calling for the imposition of jail sentences of up to 20 years.

A need to boost services in East Jerusalem

While experts say it’s important to fill the vacuum of policing in Palestinian neighborhoods, long-term security will prove elusive unless it’s accompanied by better social services and infrastructure in long-neglected East Jerusalem.

Palestinian and other Arab officials need to tone down rhetoric over Al Aqsa,  says one former Border Police chief, but Israel needs to more forcefully stand up to politicians and activists calling for more sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

“The issue hasn’t been handled sensitively enough,” says David Tsur, now an Israeli parliament member with the dovish Ha’tnuah party.

But with Netanyahu’s coalition showing signs of strain and early elections a possibility, the prime minister can gain more politically by showing himself to be tough on violence and able to stand firm amid international pressure over Jerusalem.

“Security, terror, and Jerusalem are exactly the agenda he would like if we are reaching an election period. This is his home turf,’’ says Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser. “I’m not saying he’s for inciting violence. From a political point of view, deep down, he’s happy.”

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