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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - February 12, 2007

Q. How does the J'lem Mughrabi Gate construction affect Israeli-Pal. relations? Q. ...Lebanon fit into Israel-Syrian peace talks?

Q. The Olmert government opted to initiate the controversial new construction of a bridge/walkway to the Temple Mount's Mughrabi Gate last week just as Fateh and Hamas were reaching agreement in Mecca on a unity government. Where does this leave Israeli-Palestinian relations?

A. The Olmert government's treatment of the Mughrabi walkway issue offers a classic illustration of the principle in Israeli political life that sometimes "it's better to be smart than right", i.e., wisdom is a better guide than justice. On the other hand, Olmert's "wait and see" policy regarding the unity government deal reflects an understanding of the classic Arab admonition: "haste is from the devil".

To be sure, where the Mughrabi walkway is concerned, justice is on Israel's side. The old walkway is dangerous; if it collapses, visitors to the Mount will be hurt and Israel blamed. The new walkway is in no way part of the Temple Mount and is nowhere near the Aqsa Mosque or its foundations. Israeli law requires archeological excavations on the walkway site before the new structure can be built; this dig, as well, clearly and visibly does not threaten any Muslim holy sites. Moreover, the Olmert government definitely informed the Jerusalem Muslim Waqf and the Jordanian government (both of which claim patronage over the Temple Mount mosques) well in advance of the proposed excavations.

So much for justice. But where is the wisdom? Both the Jordanians and the Palestinian Waqf replied to the government of Israel that they opposed the excavation and warned that it could incite rioting. The Waqf proposed rebuilding a temporary walkway for the time being. Worse, the Prime Minister's Office apparently didn't bother to fully inform either the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or to consult with them about the timing of the project--either because Olmert's relations with Amir Peretz and Tzipi Livni are so bad or due to faulty decision-making and administrative work. Peretz reacted by sending a letter of protest to Olmert and demanding that the excavations cease. This was quickly leaked to the press, thereby placing internal Israeli political squabbling at the center of the controversy and indirectly encouraging Arab protests.

One could of course argue that there is never a good time to start digging near the Temple Mount and that interested Arab parties will always exploit such a project as an excuse for inciting unrest and condemning Israel internationally. In the present case, the Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders who have encouraged the rioting on and near the Temple Mount would seemingly have to be blind not to recognize that the excavations are not a threat to the Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The Olmert government, which announced it would install a live round-the-clock video link covering the excavations in the hope of convincing the Arab world of its good intentions, sought to wait out the rioters.

But why ignore Jordanian and Palestinian Waqf warnings? Where is the recognition that Muslim sensitivity about the mosques is so acute, and Israeli credibility so low, that even a bulldozer working 50 meters from the Temple Mount walls and at least 150 meters from al Aqsa is cause for suspicion. True, the situation is being exploited by cynical Israeli Arab leaders and Hamas and Fateh leaders, all vying to enhance their leadership credentials. But that is hardly a surprise. And the pictures of men and women over 45 on the Temple Mount last Friday throwing stones at Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall and then at the Israel Police should send a wake-up call to all concerned. Until now the police believed that barring younger Muslims from the mosques on volatile Friday prayer days was sufficient for avoiding violence.

Ultimately, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski sought to calm matters down. He announced late yesterday (Sunday) that he was freezing plans to build the bridge/walkway and would give all Jerusalem residents, including the city's Palestinian community, a chance to inspect the plans and suggest alternatives. But he intends to allow the archeological rescue dig to proceed. Will this concession be sufficient to quell the demonstrations and riots?

At the end of the day, the Temple Mount unrest did not appear to have any serious input, positive or negative, to the Palestinian unity government negotiations in Mecca. In responding to the Mecca agreement, the Olmert government took a leaf from the Bush administration. The latter initially opposed any intra-Palestinian agreement that did not satisfy the Quartet's and Israel's famous three conditions and warned President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi King Abdullah not to stray from those conditions, but then held off from reacting officially to the Mecca agreement pending clarifications and the emergence of an actual new government with new guidelines. Olmert even added that his government's attitude toward the new PA government would be influenced by the fate of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, thereby implying that the three conditions might be negotiable.

Still, Olmert appeared to be ignoring the bigger picture. His government has a vested interest in the apparent achievements at Mecca. On the one hand, Saudi King Abdullah seems to have successfully exercised his inter-Arab leadership to squeeze Iran out of the Palestinian picture, end internal Palestinian violence and compensate for the Bush administration's repeated mistakes in the Middle East and ultimate lack of interest in genuine Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. On the other, Hamas appears to be gradually moderating its positions, beginning with its decisions in the course of little more than a year to participate in PA parliamentary elections, accept a ceasefire and advocate a "hudna" (a long-term ceasefire), and culminating in the Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal's remark after the Mecca agreement, "Hamas is adopting a new political language".

The Mecca agreement could ultimately come to nothing. After all, it is not built on any genuine reconciliation between the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fateh, and the slightest spark of internal conflict in Gaza could reignite civil war and end the current rapprochement. On the other hand, peace and quiet in Gaza and the West Bank is in Israel's interest. Since Hamas in any case is not a candidate for a genuine peace process, the Olmert government has every reason to withhold judgment on the new agreement, reconsider the three anachronistic conditions, and go ahead with the summit meeting next week with Abbas and Condoleezza Rice in order to hear clarifications from Abbas.

Q. If the government of Israel opts to accept the Syrian invitation to renew peace talks, where does this leave Lebanon and the volatile Israel-Lebanon border situation?

A. One of the few really persuasive arguments against an Israeli decision to enter into renewed peace talks with Syria concerns the possible negative ramifications of those negotiations for Lebanon. Damascus almost certainly hopes to exploit a peace channel with Israel as cover for strengthening its claim to hegemony over Beirut and forcing the Siniora government to abandon its support for an international tribunal to try the assassins of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Syrian President Bashar Assad, himself possibly implicated in the Hariri murder, reportedly hopes to be able to inform Washington, Paris and Riyadh, all three of which have championed the Hariri cause, that they can have Syrian peace with Israel and possibly even weaken Iran's influence in the Levant--but in return they will have to recognize Syria's "legitimate" interests in Lebanon.

Those interests have traditionally comprised not only a claim to sovereignty or at least to a special relationship that obviates the need for the two states to exchange ambassadors, but also drugs and other smuggling, terrorism, assassination of anti-Syrian politicians and close coordination with Hizballah. While Lebanon has for many decades been a problematic neighbor for Israel, the last thing Jerusalem should want to do is sacrifice that country in return for an agreement with Syria. After all, it is Damascus that to a large extent has been the chief troublemaker in Lebanon over the years. Even last week's skirmish on the Lebanon-Israel border can be linked to Syria, which continues to support Hizballah and channel weaponry to it while weakening the government in Beirut to a point where the Lebanese army still cannot deal with Hizballah's provocations (in this case, placing explosive charges just north of the border fence) on its own.

Yet Lebanese moderates have an interest in Israel making peace with Syria, insofar as such a step would radically reduce the likelihood of another war in the region. The solution, according to Lebanese close to the Siniora government, would be for Israel to respond positively to the Syrian invitation to renew peace talks while simultaneously inviting Lebanon to negotiate peace with Israel and linking the two negotiating tracks.

This would put Damascus on the spot. Having solicited Israel's participation in negotiations, it could hardly back out just because Jerusalem invited Beirut to parallel talks. In this sense, the very act of inaugurating the Syrian-Israeli (and parallel Lebanese-Israeli) talks would constitute indirect Syrian acknowledgement of Lebanon's independent and sovereign status. It would also reassure the Americans, French and Saudis that Israel would not connive with Syria to neutralize the Hariri murder investigation or subjugate Lebanon once more to Damascus' will.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that Syria refused to negotiate because Israel solicited talks with Lebanon or that Syria tried to sabotage those talks, Jerusalem would have adequate cause to back out of its talks with Damascus.

As for Lebanon, it is almost a foregone conclusion that it would agree to peace talks with Israel only if Jerusalem negotiated with Syria in parallel. And it would make peace with Israel only if Israel first made peace with Syria, thereby ironing out the Shebaa Farms issue and removing any excuse for Syria to try to compel Lebanon not to make peace.