Playing With Matches in Hebron

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 24, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There are two ways to explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of plans to renovate two sacred shrines in the West Bank and add them to his new heritage trail of Israeli historical sites. One explanation is that he wants to buy some credit with settlers and the religious right in order to shore up his right flank, because he’s preparing to enter negotiations with the Palestinians that will entail serious concessions. The other is that he‘s not prepared to make serious concessions at all right now, and he figures he can buy some time by stirring up a bit of a rumpus.

Either way, he’s playing a dangerous game. The region is a tinderbox — a cliché, but truer now than ever. Constantly escalating threats have been flying back and forth for months between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, each side insisting it doesn’t want war but threatening hellfire if the other side shoots first. Lurking in the background is their patron, Iran. It’s an odd moment for Israel’s prime minister to be playing with matches.

On its face, the heritage plan is a fire hazard. One of the sites slated for a facelift is the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a revered shrine in Islam as well as in Judaism. (The other is Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem.) The Tomb of the Patriarchs is currently shared by the two faiths in a precarious, heavily guarded condominium arrangement that periodically erupts. A remodeling job could be deadly. Nobody knows better than Netanyahu how quickly blood starts to flow when you create an Israeli tourist attraction near a Muslim holy site. He’s been through it before — notably when he opened a new exit to an ancient tunnel along the base of the Temple Mount for public use in 1996, sparking riots and igniting a shooting war with Palestinian Authority police that left 70 dead.

The stakes today make the 1996 tunnel riots look like child’s play. Just about everyone in Israel, from cabdrivers to intelligence officers, is predicting war by year’s end. It’s a war that none of the local parties wants, according to Israeli and Western intelligence agencies, but it will be inevitable if the players don’t find a way to back off.

The next war, if it comes, will be unlike anything Israel has known in the six decades since its independence war, Israeli security experts tell me. Hezbollah is capable of hitting metropolitan Tel Aviv, the densely populated heart of the Jewish state, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of sophisticated, long-range rockets. In the view of one well-connected Israeli journalist I spoke to, the country would be changed beyond recognition, not just physically but psychologically and politically.

The big question mark is what might trigger the war. Hezbollah has largely rebuilt the arsenal it lost in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Experts believe, though, that it isn’t ready yet for a new round and isn’t eager to start one. Moreover, its new role as a partner in Beirut’s governing coalition raises the stakes for Lebanon, which dreads the pulverizing it will face in the next war.

But Hezbollah is not its own master. It opens fire when Iran tells it to. And Iran’s goal right now, Israel and the Western allies agree, is to preserve its freedom of action and slow the march toward sanctions. Hezbollah plays a key role in the Iranian game-plan, mainly as a sword dangling over Israel’s head. If and when Tehran decides that international pressure over its nuclear program has become intolerable, Hezbollah can be unleashed and Israel will pay the price.

The same goes for Hamas, although to a lesser degree. Hamas’s weaponry is trivial compared to Hezbollah’s. The sophisticated new systems smuggled into Gaza over the past year can probably inflict real damage on Beersheba and perhaps Ashkelon, a serious enough threat. With its likely ability to hit Tel Aviv, Hezbollah is the real threat. But Hamas is the likelier fuse for a regional conflagration.

Israel’s near-term goal, therefore, should be easing conditions in the territories and avoiding unnecessary confrontations. The idea is twofold: First, to deny Hamas an excuse for war. Second, to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions and strengthen the Palestinian Authority — which would, in turn, make it easier for neighboring states to line up with Israel and isolate Iran.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s addition of the two West Bank sites to the heritage trail is a shortsighted gambit to distract the right. Or maybe it’s just another chance to wave the flag and stick it to the Palestinians. Either way, this sort of provocative maneuver is the last thing Israel needs.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.