When Israeli security arrived at the East Jerusalem home of 75-year-old Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab on Feb. 24, diplomatic alarm bells sounded in the royal court of the nearby Jordanian capital, Amman. The arrest and subsequent restrictions slapped on Salhab are seen as part of a one-upmanship in Israeli electoral politics that could easily trigger major bloodshed.
In the Israeli general election, which is set for April 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces possible indictment on corruption charges, is fighting for his political life.
Salhab is the chairman of the Islamic Waqf Council, the custodian of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. He holds a Jordanian diplomatic passport and is the most senior official on the Jordanian payroll. According to a 2013 agreement with the Palestinian president, all issues involving Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem fall under the purview of the king of Jordan. King Abdullah II is also the leader of the Hashemite family, who trace their ancestry directly back to the prophet Muhammad. Access to the holy places and the freedom of worship are also stipulated in Article 9 of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty.
The humiliating arrest of Salhab was apparently in retaliation for a recent incident in which worshipers led by the Waqf Council broke into a prayer hall in the al-Aqsa Mosque complex that Israel had unilaterally ordered Palestinians not to use since 2003. (At the time the hall was being used by a hard-line Islamic leader, which prompted the Israeli ban.) Jordanian officials have regularly demanded the right to use the area, which is located within the UNESCO world heritage site.
Salhab was released shortly after his detention, but the Israelis subsequently banned the Islamic leader from entering Islam’s third-holiest mosque for 40 days. His deputy Najah Bakir has been banned for four months. A Jerusalem nongovernmental organizations says that more than 100 Palestinians, including Waqf guards, academics, students, women activists and others, have also been prohibited from entering the entire mosque complex. The Palestinian leadership, the Jordanian government and parliament, and even the Jordanian Evangelical Council (representing some of Jordan’s Christians) have protested the arrest. Jordan’s Waqf Minister Abdel Nasser Abu Bassal said that Israel is “playing with fire” by arresting and restricting the movements of Salhab.
Netanyahu has called for the small prayer hall to be closed again. No reason was given, but it is clear that right-wing elements in Israel have been accusing the Israeli political leadership and security of being “soft” when it comes to who makes decisions regarding what Muslims and the world call al Haram al Sharif and Jews call the Temple Mount.
Israel’s upcoming Knesset elections are bringing out some of the ugliest positions and statements in Israel’s 71-year old history. Netanyahu has been slammed for aligning his Likud party with an anti-Arab racist movement inspired by the ultranationalist politician Meir Kahane. Even the pro-Israel AIPAC attacked Netanyahu for this move.
The race for being the nastiest to Palestinians is not limited to Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party. The head of the newly established Blue and White Party, former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz, has taken credit in an election video for killing Palestinians in the 2014 war on Gaza and boasts that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” while the Israeli army was under his command.
The dangers of this internal Israeli electoral competition may not be limited to the Palestinians. This crazy election season might prove tempting to some in powerful positions to push for a regional clash with Syria, Iran and possibly even Lebanon.
The absence of any deterrent from Washington could easily encourage Netanyahu — who is not only prime minister but also defense and foreign minister as well as commander in chief — to take a risky military gamble hoping to unify Israelis behind him and thus possibly allowing him to stay in power.
The dangers of violence in Jerusalem and beyond were further aggravated by the Israeli attorney general’s recent decision to recommend indictment for Netanyahu on bribery and abuse of trust charges arising from three separate corruption investigations.
The question that has many people in the region worried is a simple one. This politically vulnerable four-time prime minister is trying to get elected to a fifth term at all costs in order to stay out of jail. Who can guarantee that he will not resort to war to save his career?