Flashpoint Jerusalem 27.10.2009

Flashpoint Jerusalem

Jakarta Post, Indonesia

The recent unrest in Jerusalem's Holy Basin should not be taken lightly. Let's not be confused here, this unrest has absolutely nothing to do with any perceived or real threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is none. Nor, with Israeli plans to build there or in its immediate vicinity – there aren't any.

Since liberating (or occupying, depending on who you ask) East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has scrupulously maintained access to Muslim, Christian and Jewish Holy places and immediately returned de facto control of the Muslim areas of interest on the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) to the control of the Muslim religious authority, the Wakf.

The unrest is, as so often, a direct result of the lack of progress in the peace process but also, a result of Israel's unrelenting effort to build in other areas of East Jerusalem thus creating facts on the ground before negotiations can settle disagreements.

Fanning the flames are a handful of religious Jewish nationalists who occasionally demand access to the Temple Mount to pray there and some Muslim radicals, notably from the northern section of the Islamic movement of Israel's Arab population, who keep inciting their reluctant Muslim brethren to violent protest in Jerusalem.

These two groups are hell-bent on turning a conflict over land and boundaries into a religious confrontation.

The recent trilateral summit meeting in Washington, imposed by US President Obama and attended by Israeli and Palestinian leaders Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, made the situation clear to everyone: Prime Minister Netanyahu is unwilling to make concessions necessary to move forward, and President Abbas with Hamas blowing down his neck is reluctant to enter into talks without receiving concessions, while President Obama at present appears averse to enforcing his own position, which seems to favor the Palestinians.

At the same time as Netanyahu is cementing his hold on Israel's government by playing for time and thus to the right wing of his coalition, Mahmoud Abbas is losing his tenuous grip on the Palestinian Authority.

By relenting to Obama and Netanyahu and attending the summit without preconditions, he stepped back from his original demands and has come under strong criticism from many Palestinians, not only Hamas.

The publication of the Goldstone report by the UN Human Rights Commission castigating mainly Israel, but also Hamas, for alleged war crimes and/or crimes against humanity in and around Gaza was supposed to put pressure on Israel. Under heavy US and Israeli pressure, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas caved in and asked the UN to delay voting on the report for six months.

After Mahmoud Abbas' reversal on the report, the same Hamas movement that just before had vocally discounted the Goldstone report because of its criticism of Hamas, turned around and blasted the Palestinian President for letting Israel off the hook.

In response to who he calls "the Emirate of darkness", Mahmoud Abbas has now reversed himself again by supporting an immediate UN discussion of the report, but the tension has put a wrench into the efforts to get the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, to negotiate an agreement and finally establish a unified government and a common negotiating position vis-*-vis Israel.

While the absence of a unified Palestinian government certainly complicates the conduct of peace negotiations with Israel, there are plenty of reasons why the Jewish state would be well advised to take immediate and, if necessary, unilateral steps to initiate withdrawal from as much Palestinian territory as reasonable under the circumstances.

Any further delay of tangible movement clearly demonstrating Israel's willingness to end the occupation will increase the likelihood of another intifada, which may well start, where else, in the city of peace, Jerusalem.

The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.

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