Jerusalem’s crumbling status quo

At the epicenter of the new escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence is a deep dispute over Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade — known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Tensions burst to the surface this time round with Palestinians trying to prevent the entry of religious Jews, who come in especially big numbers on the Jewish high holidays, to the site by throwing stones and firecrackers at the Israeli police. It was followed by the resumption of highly detrimental age- and gender-based limitations on Muslim entry to Al-Aqsa which Palestinians saw as a step towards “dividing Al-Aqsa”: establishing separate prayer times for Muslims and Jews after centuries of exclusive Muslim worship at the site. Since then, disorganized stabbings and seemingly random violence have spread across Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel and Gaza.

Speculation that this is the beginning of a third intifada is still premature. But there is no doubting the origin of this inflammatory spiral. And there’s plenty that leaders on both sides can do about it.

At heart, it is a Palestinian reaction to what they increasingly perceive as Israel taking over a Muslim site and symbol of Palestinian nationalism and what the international community — and Jordan in particular — sees as a violation of what is known as the “Status Quo.” This is a specific, unwritten, de-facto arrangement between Israel and Jordan, in effect since 1967 when Israel began occupying the site, by which, crudely put, Muslims administer the Holy Esplanade while Israel polices it from the outside.

The delicate purpose of the arrangement is to guarantee free access to the site for non-Muslims, while ensuring that the prohibition of non-Muslim worship or religious rituals is respected. But there is an inherent problem: Although Israel, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) all claim to support the Status Quo, they do not have a shared sense of what it is or should be.

This historically useful arrangement faltered during last summer’s violent escalation in Jerusalem but was reaffirmed by new understandings between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah in November 2014. The thrust of the understandings was that Israel would restrain Jewish activists seeking to change the Status Quo through legislative and grass-roots activism, and Jordan would restrain Palestinian activists using violence to keep Jews out of the compound.

But there was one problem: The deal was based primarily on a general commitment to curbing provocations, rather than on specific steps that each side would take or avoid to achieve calm. Both parties have thus been quick to accuse the other of violating unwritten rules and, in return, both feel free to disregard their own commitments.

Clarifying and bracing the understandings

Clarifying and bracing the understandings, as Secretary Kerry suggests, is vital, and must include agreement on the day-to-day practices, not only on the objectives. The design of these steps would raise Jordanian (and Palestinian) fears that a written document would endow Israel’s role with a legitimacy it does not merit, since the site is occupied. Israel meanwhile worries that any international presence would endanger its claim to sovereignty over the site.

Even more complex than reaching detailed arrangements would be agreeing on judge and jury. Jerusalem and Amman will not agree to bring Palestinians into any new set-up and may at most accept some kind of Israeli-Jordanian self-monitoring and enforcement. Yet totally excluding the Palestinians is risky: It would turn them into spoilers.

Bracing the understandings won’t resolve the escalating crisis on its own, however. Broader political steps are necessary. And as the International Crisis Group’s recent report points out, the entire Status Quo should be reinforced, above all politically. The violence during the Jewish High Holidays this and last year clearly demonstrates that as ever more religious Jews ascend to the site, Israel can no longer control Muslim nor non-Muslim access to Islam’s third holiest site in the absence of a prominent Muslim interlocutor.

Israel could help by publicly stating the importance of Jordan’s role at the site, and by allowing the Waqf, an Islamic body affiliated with Jordan that is charged with administering the site, to carry out certain maintenance projects hitherto rejected by Jerusalem.

A complementary way to signal to Palestinians that Israel does not seek exclusive control would be to give Palestinians in East Jerusalem a way to have a voice in management of the site, possibly in some consultative capacity to the Waqf. Indeed, the recent violence demonstrates, once again, the problems that ensue when there is no effective Arab leadership in the city.

In return for empowering the Waqf and enabling East Jerusalem leaders to voice their population’s needs, the Israeli government should be able to secure free, undisturbed access for non-Muslims to the site and a sustained calm at the Esplanade. It would help if Israel addressed provocative entries including by reinstating the interdiction of ascension of Israeli soldiers in uniform, reintroducing limitations on the size of groups of religious Jews and banning visiting Israeli politicians from making political declarations.

Palestinian, Jordanian and other Muslim leaders, upon witnessing a major easing of access restrictions on Muslims, could also help by refraining from publicly denying the ancient Jewish Temple’s existence, and affirming that there is an existing and historic Jewish connection to the city.

Of course, many other factors are contributing to the current escalation, and dealing with the Esplanade issue alone will not suffice to correct the deep problems with the defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But if there is one place where an improvement could exert a powerful knock-on effect, the Esplanade is it.

Ofer Zalzberg is senior Israel/Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-prevention organization.

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