Temple Mount Crisis Hinders Trump’s Peace Efforts

WASHINGTON – Two weeks ago, sandwiched between Israeli Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Palestinian Water Authority Head Mazen Ghoneim, President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt proudly lauded a breakthrough on a new Israeli-Palestinian water agreement. Greenblatt declared that the water agreement is “an example of what can be achieved when the sides work together” and reminded that “President Trump has clarified that promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace is one of his highest priorities.”

However, a mere eight days later, Israelis and Palestinians experienced the most deadly day of the conflict this year with three Israelis brutally stabbed in Halamish and three Palestinians killed while protesting new security measures on the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Abbas traded insults over who was responsible for the deteriorating crisis over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem. Gone was the momentum and positive atmosphere trumpeted by Washington following the water deal.

For some pro-Israel backers, the Trump administration’s efforts weren’t supportive enough of the Jewish state during the past tumultuous 72 hours. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not issue a single statement of condemnation after the horrific terror attack in Halamish on Friday nor did they call Netanyahu or Abbas to help mediate the crisis. When the conflict started simmering, the White House released a statement.  “The United States is very concerned about tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, a site holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and calls upon the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to make a good faith effort to reduce tensions and to find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo.”

Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard University law professor, told Jewish Insider that he was “disappointed” that Washington did not back Israel more wholeheartedly. The Trump administration should have “unequivocally come down on the side of Israel and demand that there be metal detectors and videos to indicate that the highest priorities will be to save human lives and that the Palestinian Authority is dead wrong in using these murders as yet another excuse to incite violence,” he asserted.  

On Monday night, the Israeli cabinet decided to remove the Israeli security cameras, possibly in part due to U.S. pressure. At the same time, Amman released an Israeli security guard who killed two Jordanians after being stabbed at the Israeli Embassy compound. “I wish the U.S. would take a stronger stance on behalf of the safety and security of Israelis on the Temple Mount,” Dershowitz added. Despite Israel removing the metal detectors, Palestinian religious leaders have continued to object to the Jewish state’s installation of cameras at the sensitive site.

“We encourage efforts that will help calm tensions at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but we leave it to the parties to determine what those efforts might be,” State Department spokeswoman Samantha Sutton told Jewish Insider. “We urge the relevant parties to continue their efforts to ensure the safety and security of this holy site. We leave it to the relevant parties to determine the most appropriate measures.”

The Palestinians were also upset with the Trump administration’s efforts. Abbas’ dramatic call to cut security ties with Israel on Friday was partially due to feelings that Washington is not invested in finding a resolution to the ongoing conflict, noted Grant Rumley, a researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). “Abbas wants more involvement from the Trump administration, and not only on the current crisis. They’re looking for a commitment not only to the status quo in Jerusalem but also the status quo in US peacemaking, namely that the two-state solution is the destination for the peace process. Without hearing that publicly, I think Abbas and the Palestinian leadership will continue to be skeptical of the administration,” Rumley added.

With Greenblatt shuttling between the Israeli Prime Minister’s office and the Jordanian capital of Amman, Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group and an expert on the Temple Mount, noted that Washington appears to be overlooking some important new developments. “The administration seems to underestimate the importance of non-state stakeholders in this conflict: Most importantly, the Palestinian protestors and their leadership in East Jerusalem,” Zalzberg explained. “Even if (Jordanian King) Abdullah would accept a formula, it’s far from clear that they would be able to get the public to support them to support it and cease the demonstrations.”

However, for Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute, much of the criticism of the Trump administration approach is unfair. The current U.S. policy is “hands-off, but at the same time I’m not sure how effective (former Secretary of State John) Kerry’s approach really was. It’s hard for me to be overly critical of what look likes a slower and more cautious approach,” Ibish noted.

With attention focused on the roots of the current Temple Mount conflict, Zalzberg suggested an alternative approach. “There is an over focus in how to deal with the metal detectors. The site is very volatile there are many other potential grievances. The negotiators now need to think a step ahead: how to brace the site from further crises,” he explained.

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