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Clear and Present Danger in Jerusalem

Special analysis from Daniel Seidemann (Ir Amim) and Lara Friedman (Americans for Peace Now)

The recent violence on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is only the latest indication of the rising level of tension in Jerusalem - tension that has been steadily increasing for months. The potential for a highly disruptive, violent conflagration in Jerusalem is more likely now than at any point since the visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, triggering the worst wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence since 1967. Indeed, as the world is coming to recognize, the current mix of destabilizing factors at play is hauntingly familiar - resembling the period that led to the outbreak of the second Intifada.

These tensions are in no small part the by-product of President Obama's efforts to re-launch a serious Middle East peace process. Fear that President Obama may succeed has given spoilers every incentive to undertake provocative actions. At the same time, President Obama's failure thus far has emboldened spoilers to act even more recklessly and energetically. They are see an opportunity to capitalize on this interlude to change the status quo on the ground in Jerusalem - and in particular in the Old City and Holy Basin - in order to foreclose any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

On the political level, the current context is eerily similar to the one that existed in the weeks prior to Ariel Sharon's now infamous visit to the Temple Mount on September 2000. An ambitious political move - Camp David then, settlement freeze and resumption of final status talks now - has hit major obstacles, discrediting the political process and giving rise to skepticism, if not contempt, for the peace process and its advocates. Time-honored patterns of greeting American peace envoys like Senator Mitchell with provocative settlement activities are already being replicated.

On the geographic level, Jerusalem has invariably erupted - as in the case of the Sharon visit - over events in and around the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount. It is precisely in this area - from Sheikh Jarrah to Silwan - where events today have begun to careen out of control. The Shepherd's Hotel settlement approval, the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, the wounding of two Palestinians by settler gunfire in Silwan, a Supreme Court ruling allowing settler excavations under private Palestinian homes in Silwan while imposing almost punitive court costs on the Palestinian plaintiffs - all this has already led to manifestations of Belfast-like inter-communal skirmishing.

The timing, too, is familiar. It is during the Jewish High Holiday season when most eruptions in Jerusalem, historically, have occurred: 25 Palestinians dead on the Temple Mount during Sukkot in 1990, the Sukkot opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel in 1996, the Sharon Temple Mount visit on the eve of Rosh Hashana in Sept 2000, etc. Over the next 2 weeks the most sensitive core of the conflict, the Old City and its environs, will be inundated with settlers and their extremist supporters engaging in activities likely to be perceived as threats by the Palestinians.

The regional context is also familiar. It is clear, and so perceived by the various constituencies throughout the region, that this period will be critical to President Obama's ability to regenerate a political process geared to address the final status issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue of Iran has energized extremists on all sides who prefer to view the region in the terms of a zero-sum religious conflict, rather than a resolvable political conflict.

Finally, there is no shortage of Muslim and Christian extremists fanning the flames. From the August 2009 "I Love Jerusalem Settlers" visit of past (and perhaps future) US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to Jerusalem, to extremists in Israel and throughout the Muslim world who recklessly and often cynically sound the call to save al Aqsa from imminent destruction, the battle lines between the exclusionary extremists of all faiths have been drawn, and with a high profile.

Tensions are high, and the stakes could not be higher. To make it through these delicate weeks with the city - and the prospects for peace - intact, all sides must demonstrate exemplary self-restraint, in word and in deed.

For Israel, this means no provocations: no new settlement activity, no new tunneling, no new demolitions or evictions, no new symbolic or ceremonial moves on the exposed nerves of the conflict. It means instructing Israeli security services to err on the side of caution and to act with restraint, bearing in mind that over-reaction can lead to disaster. It means viewing early intervention - preventing, for the sake of maintaining public order, any inflammatory event (Israeli or Palestinian) should be considered an operational imperative.

For the Palestinians and Arab/Muslim worlds, it means refraining from polemical rhetoric and hyperbole - not stoking the fires of anger and extremism. It means engaging critically yet constructively where there are genuine concerns. It means matching Israeli restraint - assuming it is exercised - with restraint of their own.

And for the international community, it means engaging seriously and proactively, at the highest political levels.  It means making clear to all stakeholders that the world will not tolerate reckless Messianic game-playing in Jerusalem. It means making clear that the world recognizes that what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem - it has the potential to have far-reaching consequences with dire across the region, including with respect to Iran and beyond.