To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Ha'aretz: "Flirting with the apocalypse"

Co Authors Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem attorney and founder of Ir Amim, an Israeli nongovernmental agency, and Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.


Jerusalem has once again emerged in recent days as the focal point of dangerous tensions that threaten to erupt into violence or even a third intifada. Much of the media analysis has overlooked the fact that this situation did not arise out of a vacuum, but is the latest manifestation of tensions that have been steadily growing for months.

These tensions are in part a by-product of U.S. President Barack Obama's peace efforts. Fear that he may ultimately succeed in launching a peace process has driven various spoilers to undertake provocative actions, and Obama's failure thus far has emboldened these people to act even more recklessly and energetically, while noticing an opportunity to change the status quo - in particular in the Old City and the Holy Basin - and foreclose any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

For anyone tracking the situation on the ground, it is clear that the potential for a violent conflagration in Jerusalem is greater now than at any point since September 2000, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, triggering the second intifada, the worst wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence since 1967. This is no coincidence: The current mix of destabilizing factors is hauntingly familiar.

Politically, the parallels are clear. An ambitious move stalls - Camp David back then, a settlement freeze and resumption of final status talks now - and this discredits the political process and gives rise to skepticism, if not contempt, about the peace process and its advocates.

The fact that Jerusalem is once again at the heart of the matter is no coincidence either. The city is the major fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and earthquakes have been triggered invariably by events in and around the volcanic core of that conflict: the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. It is precisely in this area - spreading from Sheikh Jarrah to Silwan - where events today have begun to careen out of control. The approval of a new settlement at the Shepherd Hotel, 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 intercommunal skirmishing.

If the timing - in terms of the annual cycle - seems familiar, it is no surprise: Most eruptions in Jerusalem occur around the Jewish High Holidays. Recall the 25 Palestinians killed on the Temple Mount during Sukkot in 1990, the opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel during Sukkot in 1996, Sharon's Temple Mount visit on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in September 2000, etc.

Finally, there is no shortage of Muslim and Christian extremists fanning the flames. Witness Arab extremists like northern Islamic Movement leader Ra'ad Salah, touting fabricated reports of the imminent destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and failed U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on his "I Love Jerusalem Settlers" tour in August.

The pyromaniacs are out in force, weakening the forces of moderation and dictating the agenda. Tensions are high, and the stakes could not be higher. To make it through these delicate days with the city - and prospects for peace - intact, it is vital that all sides act with utmost restraint and responsibility.

For Israel, this means that early intervention - such as prevention, for the sake of public order, of any inflammatory event (Israeli or Palestinian) - should be the operational imperative. It also means no provocations: no new settlement activity, tunneling, demolitions or evictions. No symbolic or ceremonial activities on the exposed nerves of the conflict. Israel's actions in all these arenas will, perhaps more than any other factor, determine whether the current tension dissipates or escalates into a conflagration.

For the Palestinians and the Arab/Muslim worlds, acting responsibly means not stoking the fires of extremism with polemical rhetoric and hyperbole. This does not mean acquiescing to highly problematic Israeli policies in East Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa today is not in danger, but Palestinians in East Jerusalem constitute a community at risk, and the creation of an exclusionary settler hegemony around the Old City threatens to marginalize the Muslim and Christian presences in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority and forces of moderation in the Arab world can and should articulate genuine concerns, and demand that Israel act responsibly. Furthermore, they must also demand the same of all Palestinian factions, making clear that cynical manipulation of Jerusalem to gain domestic political points is not acceptable.

Finally, for the international community, acting responsibly requires engaging seriously and proactively, at the highest political levels. Making clear to all stakeholders that the world will not tolerate reckless Messianic games in Jerusalem. And making clear that the world recognizes that what happens in Jerusalem is not confined to Jerusalem: It has the potential for far-reaching and dire consequences across the region, including with respect to Iran and beyond.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem attorney and founder of Ir Amim, an Israeli nongovernmental agency. Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.