The Politics of Fear: Do Bloody Riots in Jerusalem Portend a Political Comeback for Bibi Netanyahu?

Article excerpt

Anywhere else it might have been a routine campaign stop at a religious shrine--classic photo-op politics. But the politician was Israel's right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon, and the shrine was perhaps the most combustible 35 acres on earth. To Palestinians, Sharon's visit last Thursday to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the site where the ancient Jewish temple once stood, was an assault on the Haram al-Sharif, sacred to Muslims as the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven. As the Muslim faithful emerged from midday prayer on the mount the next day, masses of Israelis gathered at the Western Wall just below to worship on the eve of the Jewish New Year. With depressing predictability, Palestinian teenagers pelted Jews and soldiers with stones, and the troops fired back with rubber-coated steel bullets, live sniper fire and tear-gas grenades. The scene of Sharon's political tour generated little but conflict footage for days to come: by last weekend, at least a dozen Palestinians in Jerusalem and the occupied territories were dead and hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were wounded. Talk of a potential peace breakthrough had shifted, yet again, toward worries of more bloodshed.

It was no surprise that the first major outbreak of violence in Jerusalem in more than a year occurred at the symbolic core of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Despite progress at the Camp David peace talks in July, Palestinians and Israelis remain fiercely divided over who should get sovereignty over the Temple Mount, site of two revered mosques. Last week negotiators in Washington sidestepped the issue altogether, concentrating instead on fine-tuning areas of agreement. But they can't procrastinate much longer. Israeli leader Ehud Barak's government could collapse when the Knesset returns to session late this month. And even if Barak's coalition survives, Bill Clinton is out of office come January, perhaps leaving Palestinians and Israelis without a viable broker for months. The Temple Mount eruption, moreover, shows how easy it is for opponents of the process to exacerbate deep-seated insecurities and provoke mayhem.

On one level, last week's clashes were about rival tribes laying claim to the same sacred geography. But just as significantly, it was about more mundane power struggles, not only between Arab and Jew, but between Israelis. …