Those Middle East observers who prefer to focus on Israel’s actions or inactions as the only source of tension in the region generally ignore the greatest obstacle to peace or even coexistence: the deep and abiding hatred for Jews that has become entrenched in Arab political culture. No better example of the utter irrationality of that culture and its obsessive nature exists than how the news of the renovation of a ramp leading to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount has become the subject of intense controversy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday that plans to demolish a temporary structure that allowed access to the Temple Mount would be indefinitely postponed due to the threats of violence not only from Palestinians but also from Egypt and Jordan. As with the case of previous efforts to either modernize or create better access for this historic and sacred area, any actions by Israel have been regarded by denizens of the so-called “Arab street” as a conspiratorial plot to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount or otherwise offend Muslim sensibilities. The fact that even an anti-Israel institution like UNESCO — which has routinely denounced archeological digs in the city by Israelis — regards the ramp demolition as in no way compromising Muslim rights or shrines is meaningless to Israel’s Arab foes. While frustrating for Israel, these threats ought to clearly illustrate to the world the irrational aspect of Arab and Islamic critique of Israel. The resentment the Temple Mount project has generated is rooted in a belief that Jews have no right to be in Jerusalem. It has nothing to do with anything Netanyahu or his government might do.
Renovation of the ramp, which is a temporary structure put up in 2003 after an earthquake and a severe winter storm caused the old access ramp to collapse, in no way harms the mosques on the Temple Mount or interferes with Muslim rights to worship there. Indeed, the carrying on about anything Israel does with the adjoining Western Wall or the tunnels leading to it have never been about any harm to Arabs or Muslims. After all, in an act of magnanimity that has never been equaled in the annals of war, Israel handed over control of the Temple Mount — which is the most sacred spot in Judaism — to the Muslim Wakf almost immediately after the city was unified in 1967. For the first time in history, one of the contestants for control of the city did not destroy the shrines of other faiths or convert them to other uses as Christian and Muslim conquerors had done. But Israel got no credit for Moshe Dayan’s attempt to appease Islamic sensibilities. In the decades since this gesture, the Wakf has redoubled its efforts to foment violence. Even more to the point, it has conducted excavations on the historic site that resulted in the trashing of antiquities.
The only period when all religions were allowed free access to their holy sites in the city’s history has been the last 44 years of Jewish sovereignty. Yet Muslims still react to any Jewish presence in the Old City much as they did in 1929 when extremists fomented rumors of a Jewish plot to destroy the Temple Mount mosques that resulted in riots that took the lives of many Jews, including the massacre of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron.
It speaks volumes about the way Israel remains the boogeyman of Islamic culture that even in the midst of the convulsions that have racked Egypt in recent weeks, demonstrators in Tahir Square found time to obsess about a harmless ramp renovation project in Jerusalem. Though seemingly a minor affair when compared to the great conflicts over territory and the struggle for democracy, the threats over the ramp allow us to see the deep-seated nature of anti-Israel bias.
If there is to be any hope for peace between Israel and its neighbors it will have to wait until there is a sea change in the political culture of a Muslim world still stuck in their irrational hatred for the Jews.