By James M. Dorsey
Weakened by Joe Biden’s electoral defeat of US President Donald J. Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu risks being caught between a rock and a hard place as Jordan, the Palestine Authority and the United Arab Emirates manoeuvre for control of what is to Jews the Temple Mount and to Muslims the Haram ash-Sharif, the third most holy site in Islam.
The rivalry for control of Jerusalem’s most sensitive, emotive, contested, and potentially explosive place is occurring against the backdrop of a parallel and interlinked run-up to a competition for the succession of Mahmoud Abbas, the frail 84-year old Palestinian president.
The Jerusalem site has been administered since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war by the Jordanian and Palestinian-controlled Supreme Muslim Council.
Rivalry for the religious control of the site that hosts the Al Aqsa Mosque and is where the First Jewish Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BC involves multiple risks for Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu’s inclination to back attempts by the UAE with Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, in the background, to muscle their way into the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif could complicate relations with Jordan and widen differences with the Palestine Authority.
The UAE enhanced its ability to manoeuvre by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and rushing to forge closer ties to the country’s political, security and economic elites.
In a twist of irony, the UAE finds common ground with the Israeli settler movement and the Jewish far-right in wanting to weaken Jordanian-Palestinian control of the Haram ash-Sharif and counter Turkish efforts to stoke Palestinian nationalist and religious sentiment. The settlers and the far-right are calling for internationalization of the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif, which plays into the UAE’s hands.
“Ironically, it may be the case that calls for just such an arrangement may come from Muslim citizens of countries that have normalized their ties with Israel and find it offensive that a small group of Palestinians are attempting to ban them from visiting one of their holiest sites,” said Josiah Rotenberg, a member of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based right-wing think tank.
The UAE’s recognition of Israel and willingness to engage not only with businesses located in Israel’s pre-1967 borders but also those headquartered in Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and invest in a technology park in East Jerusalem has fuelled a war of words with the Palestinians and sparked incidents with Emirati visitors to the Haram ash-Sharif.
"Most of the citizens of Israel, myself included, continue to... demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu apply full sovereignty to Judea and Samaria," said settlement leader Yossi Dagan after heading a settlers’ delegation on a visit to Dubai to discuss business opportunities. Mr. Dagan was using the biblical name of the West Bank.
The visit reinforced Palestinian assertions that the creation of diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states prior to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would reinforce Israeli occupation rather than open the door to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The “Israeli-Emirati deal raises the concern and fear within the Jordanian Awqaf and among Palestinians, because it aims to give the UAE a new role inside al-Aqsa,” said former Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs Khaled Abu Arafa, referring to the Supreme Muslim Council.
Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, didn’t need Mr. Dagan’s statement to come to that conclusion.
Resigning in protest from an Emirati clerical group established to project the UAE as a beacon of moderate Islam immediately after the announcement of UAE-Israel relations, Mr. Hussein banned Muslims from the Emirates from visiting and praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
An Emirati business delegation visiting Israel last month was verbally assaulted and told to go home by Palestinian worshippers when they went to pray at the mosque.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shatiyyeh scolded the Emiratis, saying that “one ought to enter the gates of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque by way of its owners, rather than through the gates of the occupation.”
Responding on Twitter, Laith al-Awadhi, an Emirati national, retorted: “We will visit Al-Aqsa because it does not belong to you, it belongs to all Muslims.”
Saudi lawyer and writer Abdel Rahman al-Lahim chipped in arguing that "it is very important for the Emiratis and Bahrainis to discuss with Israel ways of liberating Al-Aqsa Mosque from Palestinian thugs in order to protect visitors from Palestinian thuggery."
Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian president, has slowed down a reconciliation between his Fatah movement and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, in anticipation of a more empathetic policy by an incoming Biden administration.
Mr. Abbas broke off relations with the United States after Mr. Trump produced an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that endorsed annexation, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and cut off funding for the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials suspect the UAE, backed by Israel, of positioning Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with close ties to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as well as US officials, as a potential successor to Mr. Abbas.
Mr. Abbas could be disappointed by the degree to which a Biden administration may reverse Mr. Trump’s policy and find that it may not oppose broadening the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Anthony (Tony) Blinken, Mr. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor and a former senior official under President Barak Obama, signalled that Mr. Biden would, in contrast to Mr. Trump, oppose Israeli efforts to annex parts of the West Bank and could adopt a more critical attitude towards expansion of existing Israeli settlements.
It would likely be a position endorsed by the UAE despite the Emirates’ engagement with the settlers.
Mr. Blinken insisted that a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the “only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and also to fulfil the Palestinian right to a state of their own.”
With both Israel and the Palestinians “far from a place where they’re ready to engage on negotiations or final status talks” Mr. Blinken said that a Biden administration would seek to ensure that “neither side takes additional unilateral steps that make the prospect of two states even more distant or closing it entirely.”
The Biden administration could well see broadening of the governance of Haram ash-Sharif as one way of achieving that goal.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.