x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israel's warped priorities hurt peace process

No one religion has the right to claim stewardship over sites that are of shared significance.

On the Jewish holy day of Purim in 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and began shooting; 29 Palestinians died in the midst of their prayers, another 150 were wounded. It was Goldstein's perverse reinterpretation of the story of Esther, which Purim commemorates. This year, Jews across the world have just finished celebrating Purim, and once again Hebron and the Ibrahimi mosque, which contains the tomb of Abraham, are a flashpoint for conflict.

Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to add both the Ibrahimi mosque and the Bilal Ibn Ribah mosque in Bethlehem to a list of heritage sites to be preserved and renovated has provoked violence and outrage. Mahmoud Abbas has warned that it could lead to a third intifada; Ishmael Haniyah went one step further, actually calling for it. There is an explosive mixture of anger and disillusionment at the state of the peace process that the right fuse could ignite. Thankfully, this has not happened, yet.

If the Israeli prime minister is as surprised as he seems at the subsequent uproar, then he is truly out of touch. Mr Netanyahu need only recall the riots that erupted in 1996 when he opened a tunnel entrance under the Haram Al Sharif. It does not require an exceptionally keen intelligence to realise that the sanctity and integrity of holy sites is important in the region. Yet, he seems incapable of learning from his past, or about the importance of the past to those who do not share his faith.

Mr Netanyahu has been at pains to explain himself. The inclusion of the mosques located on land that is ostensibly part of a future Palestine was a political calculation: Mr Netanyahu needed to appease the religious Shas party to keep them in his governing coalition. He has sought to reassure the Palestinians that they will be able to continue to worship there. But that he was willing to endanger the peace process and outrage the Palestinians and the entire Arab world to appease a fringe Jewish party is illustrative of his priorities.

There is a need to preserve and, at times, restore the numerous sacred sites dotted throughout the region. However, no one religion has the right to claim stewardship over sites that are of shared significance. This is especially true when the site falls outside Israel's borders, and when the decision is guided by the interests of a party that desires "to cleanse" the land of non-Jews. Israel has a habit of patronising such extremists. The city of Hebron is a classic example. While Palestinians are cloistered in small communes and denied freedom of movement, settlers continue to grab Palestinian land. There are even pilgrimages to Goldstein's grave, a shrine to murder. The Palestinians may be angry, but it is Mr Netanyahu that is mad.