Viewed logically, the scene didn’t look a whole lot like an attempt to undermine Al-Aqsa Mosque and build the Third Temple: At the bottom of a small trapezoidal pit, a single Palestinian laborer wearing a blue hard hat carefully scraped dark soil into a bucket and handed it up to another man standing on a ledge above him, who said “Take!” in Arabic and handed it on to another worker at ground level. At this pace, they were not going to undermine anything in the coming generation.
Actually, the laborers were hired hands at an Israeli government excavation in the archaeological park next to the Western Wall. The dig is aimed at checking for antiquities before construction of pillars for a new ramp leading to Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount, aka Haram al-Sharif, site of Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. At two more spots near the pit, other workers were also carefully scraping the earth when I visited recently.
In the background, it’s true, one could hear the grind and clank of bulldozers removing the old earth embankment leading to Mughrabi Gate. Three winters ago, after a snowstorm and a minor earthquake, the embankment began crumbling. A temporary ramp, resting on a spindly metal frame, was built to access the one gate to the Temple Mount that was open to non-Muslim visitors since Israel conquered the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War. The bulldozers might appear threatening — if one irrationally believes that the secular Israeli government, which has steadfastly left the management of the Haram in Muslim hands since 1967, actually wants to replace the Islamic shrines there with the Third Temple.
Nonetheless, furious Muslim responses were built into the new ramp project from the outset. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and everyone else who signed off on the effort should have foreseen the demonstrations led by Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the radical faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, whose slogan is “Al-Aqsa is in danger.” They should have expected the rioting at Al-Aqsa after prayers last Friday; the diplomatic protests from Jordan, Egypt and Turkey — Muslim countries that are crucial to Israel’s foreign relations — and the reported claim by Palestinian legislator Nabil Sha’ath that Israel intended to destroy Al-Aqsa. It was irrational for Israel to ignore the inevitable irrational reactions.
Israeli and Arab behavior in the latest flare-up could serve as laboratory evidence for the thesis recently laid out by Israeli American psychologist Daniel Kahneman on why leaders tend to act too aggressively. Kahneman — a Nobel laureate in economics — and doctoral student Jonathan Renshon wrote in Foreign Policy that even when people “are aware of the context and possible constraints” on someone else’s behavior, “they often do not factor [them] in when assessing the other side’s motives. Yet people… assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior.” In this case, Arabs have misread Israeli motives, while Israelis have assumed that their own benign intent is obvious. To Kahneman’s thesis, we can add this: Harsh historical experience is no cure for these mistakes of perception.
The belief that “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has fueled the Arab-Jewish conflict for 80 years. In the 1920s, the infamous mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, fanned fears about Al-Aqsa to build support for Palestinian nationalism — and ignited the 1929 Arab riots, the first countrywide outbreak of anti-Jewish violence. More recently, in October 1990, the declared intent of a far-right Israeli group to lay a cornerstone for the Third Temple drew thousands of Palestinians to the Haram. Inexplicably unprepared for trouble, a tiny contingent of Israeli police used live fire against rioters, killing a score of people and sparking more rioting in the West Bank and in Israeli Arab towns.
That flare-up was apparently forgotten when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to open a tunnel running alongside the Temple Mount in 1996. Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, swung a sledgehammer at the opening. Netanyahu and Olmert knew that the tunnel posed no threat to the Islamic shrines, and they assumed that Palestinians would realize this. Instead, Palestinians read Israeli intentions in the worst light: Tunneling meant undermining. The bloodshed that followed was a preview of what Palestinians would call the Al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000.
Certainly, Muslim descriptions of Israeli intent are also divorced from historical experience: For 40 years, Israel has kept the shrines intact and in Islamic hands. Yet it is still in Israel’s interest to take the Al-Aqsa anxiety syndrome into account, because it is in Israel’s vital interest to maintain calm in Jerusalem. Before work began, the Islamic trust, or Waqf, that administers the Haram was reportedly informed, as was the Jordanian government. That does not mean that any serious effort was made to negotiate their agreement, perhaps by offering a quid pro quo.
Early this week, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski intervened, deciding that the ramp required approval by local planning bodies. That’s a drawn-out process allowing residents — including East Jerusalem Palestinians — to file objections. The Israel Antiquities Authority said that, in the meantime, the exploratory dig would continue. The decision to keep excavating shows a strong desire to show who’s in charge in the Old City. But it does not demonstrate a reasoned respect for the impact of unreasonable fears.