PALESTINIAN LEADERS, as much as their Israeli counterparts, should have no interest in a “third intifada,” or popular uprising, in Jerusalem or the West Bank. The last one, beginning in 2000, killed thousands while profoundly damaging the cause of Palestinian statehood. Yet a series of violent incidents in Jerusalem — capped by a horrific attack on a Jewish synagogue Tuesday — have raised the prospect of the snowballing of communal bloodshed. And while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he opposes a return to violent resistance — unlike the rival Hamas movement — he can’t seem to resist words and actions that suggest otherwise.
As tensions mounted in Jerusalem in recent weeks, Mr. Abbas accused Israel of starting a “holy war” over the al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s most sensitive ground, the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount. His Fatah party called for a “day of rage” to protest an Israeli government decision to temporarily close off access to the site after the attempted murder of a militant Jewish activist. While no one believes Mr. Abbas supported the bloody rampage in the synagogue by two Palestinians, his condemnation of it was coupled with yet another reference to the alleged “assault on Haram al-Sharif.”
A generous view of Mr. Abbas is that he is chasing after inflamed Palestinian public opinion, rather than attempting to shape it. Arabs in East Jerusalem, who largely opted out of the previous uprisings, have been enraged by reports that Israel intends to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount, the third-most holy site in Islam, where Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray. Tensions in the city have been rising since the murder last summer of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists, and recent announcements by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu of new Jewish settlements in and around the city haven’t helped.
Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister, promised last week not to change the status quo at the holy sites. But the Israeli leader, who some believe is preparing for an early election, is also exploiting the crisis for political ends. Though investigators found that the synagogue attackers were not linked to any group, Mr. Netanyahu concentrated his rhetorical fire on Mr. Abbas. On Monday he ordered the family homes of the attackers demolished — a much-criticized punishment that Israel employed during the previous uprisings. He asked all Israeli parties to join in a unity government, a measure the country has previously embraced only in wartime.
The good news is that cooperation between Israeli and U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces in the West Bank — the key to the recent years of relative peace in the territory — has not been ruptured. While it continues, the mass carnage that haunted both Israelis and Palestinians in the early 2000s is unlikely to resume. But lone-wolf attacks by extremists on both sides will continue, and proliferate, absent steps by leaders on both sides to reduce tensions. They know what they should do: refrain from inflammatory statements and hold off on provocative acts like new Israeli settlement announcements or Palestinian appeals for recognition by the United Nations. That will require a change in the present political course of both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu.