In 2015, the last time Palestinians rioted over the Haram-al-Sharif – the Temple Mount to Christians and Jews – a handful of pious Jews had committed the offense of attempted prayer. This week’s protest over the presence of metal detectors takes the dispute to a new level of unreality. After Israeli-Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen with weapons hidden on the site, Israel installed metal detectors, a common sight at mosques in many Muslim countries. After Israel removed the metal detectors under apparent pressure from Washington, the Muslim religious authorities announced that they would not accept any Israeli security measures of any kind, including cameras and remote sensing devices. Cairo’s Al-Azhar University denounced any and all Israeli security measures as “irresponsible and provocative,” adding, “All measures taken by the occupation authorities at Al Haram Al Sharif in occupied Jerusalem are null and void and are not based on any humanitarian or civilized principle.”
The outrage over security measures that are standard in public places in many parts of the world seems contrary to common sense. The trouble is that common sense is not an attractive proposition in the Arab world. Much of the Arab world clings to the belief that if the Jews do not control the Temple Mount, they really have not returned to Zion, and their presence in the surrounding city of Jerusalem and country of Israel must be a temporary aberration. It is a dangerous fantasy, and nothing good can come of nurturing it.
In 1993, the birth year of the median Arab today, East Asia’s per capita GDP was barely two-fifths of the Middle East and North Africa. Today it is a bit over half of East Asia’s. In real terms, the Arab world’s per capita GDP hasn’t changed in the past ten years while East Asia’s has more than doubled. Less than half of the children of the Arab world complete primary school, according to the World Bank, which puts the effective literacy rate well below 50%. Almost 30% of median-age Arabs are unemployed, without counting the public universities that disguise unemployment by warehousing the jobless young. Not a single Arabic-speaking university awards a degree that would pass the hiring department of a major corporation.
The illusions of the so-called Arab Spring are long gone. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan are in chaos. Egypt avoided social breakdown only through the restoration of the military government that its people overthrew in 2011, and $10 billion in annual subsidies from the Gulf states. It is hard to point to a source of hope for countries that have neither the skills nor the governance to catch up in an Asian-dominated world. The best that the Arab-speaking world can hope for is the dull ache of the status quo. If there is change, it is likely to be in the direction of Libya.
Of all the humiliations that the Arab suffer, the most painful is repeated defeat at the hands of a tiny number of Israeli Jews. Five times a day Muslims pray to acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of Allah, repeating “Come to prayer, come to success.” There is no success to point to. The success of the Jews – the perverters of the true revelation given by Moses and Jesus, according to Islam, and restored by Mohammed – is inconceivable in Muslim beliefs on salvation. Yet the Jews have come back to Israel and Jerusalem, and even the guardians of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family, quietly seek help from the Jews to protect them against Iran. India, the largest developing country by population, has abandoned the Palestinian cause; its prime minister visited Israel without paying so much as a courtesy call to Ramallah.
Palestinian strategists have long since abandoned the hope of defeating Israel in the field, and hope instead to create a humanitarian catastrophe so loathsome that the world community will intervene on their behalf. Palestinian polemicist Mohammed Dareghmeh wrote in 2015, “Palestine is an international issue. [The issue] won’t be decided in a flurry of knives or acts of martyrdom [suicide attacks], or in protests or demonstrations. It will end only when the world understands it has a duty to intervene and to draw borders and lines, as it did in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo … One might ask: How long? And I say: The day will come. … One might ask: Did the peaceful struggle bring about the end of the occupation? And I say: Did the military and armed struggle do so? …. Only the world can bring the solution.”
With Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Palestinian hopes of luring the international community into a dictated agreement suffered an enormous setback. Meanwhile the Gulf states have come to view Israel as an ally against Iran, while Egyptian security cooperation with Israel is stronger than ever in history. The Palestinians are the odd man out. And President Trump himself went to the Western Wall of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, the first US president ever to do so – as a private citizen, to be sure, and without any Israeli official presence – in a powerful gesture of sympathy for Jewish national aspirations.
The last wedge that the Palestinians can drive between Washington and its Arab allies is the Temple Mount itself. This is not a matter of Muslim theology, nor a question of sentimental attachment: rather, it is the embodiment of the last hope that the hated Zionist presence will be temporary, and the prayers of a billion and a half Muslims for “success” eventually will be granted. Whether last week’s murder of Israeli policemen with guns hidden on the Temple Mount was a fortuitous pretext for the protests, or a provocation intended to produce a wave of outrage in the Arab world, is unclear.
That explains why Arab governments were “conspicuously silent” on the matter, as the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported July 24. One can only imagine the content of the telephone traffic between Washington and Arab capitals over the weekend. Israel at length removed the metal detectors to the official praise of the White House.
Washington and Jerusalem only have unpleasant choices in the short term. The so-called Arab Street has been quiet for several years. But life in the Arab world remains difficult to bear, and the danger of an eruption of popular rage is ever present. The Israelis (and above all the Israeli security services) do not want another Intifada and hope the issue will go away. Feeding the Arab’s refusal to admit defeat, though, will only encourage behavior that has come to resemble the Black Knight’s one-sided battle with King Arthur in Monty Python’s Holy Grail film. Peace isn’t made when one side is defeated, but when one side admits that it is defeated. Delaying this admission keeps the war going.