October 20, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Crisis in Jerusalem and Secretary Kerry’s Upcoming Engagement

By Ilan Goldenberg

Washington, October 20 – As violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians escalates and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to meet with those two countries’ leaders, Ilan Goldenberg, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Director and former member of the American negotiating team during the 2013–2014 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has written a new press note, “Crisis in Jerusalem and Secretary Kerry’s Upcoming Engagement."

The full press note is below:

With the recent wave of violence continuing in Jerusalem and across Israel and the West Bank, Secretary Kerry plans to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, and Jordan’s King Abdullah in the coming days to try to calm the situation.  The latest violence was sparked by conflicts over the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif compound, which is governed by a “status quo” understanding whereby Jews and Muslims are both permitted to visit the compound but only Muslim prayer is allowed. Palestinian concerns that Israel plans to change the status quo have risen in recent years in response trips by Israeli right wing extremists to the compound and increasing rhetoric about changing the status quo. Palestinian provocateurs have used this threat to spark anger and violence even as the Israeli government has publicly reiterated its commitment to the status quo.

The latest round was ignited by a combination of a trip in September to the compound by right wing cabinet Minister Uri Ariel, the discovery of weapons being stored by Palestinian extremists, and a decision by the Israeli government to place age restrictions on Palestinians on who could enter the compound. However, the violence has now taken on a life of its own, with young Palestinians pursuing “lone wolf” attacks against Israelis and right wingers in Israel encouraging citizens to arm themselves and act as their own security forces. 

Secretary Kerry’s task will be to try and reduce the violence by repeating last November’s successful intervention when he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah and negotiated an arrangement that resulted in looser access for Palestinians at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif in exchange for a more restrained public tone from the Palestinian leadership. However, it will be difficult to repeat this success as both sides are now frustrated with what they see as violations of last year’s agreement. While neither Abbas nor Netanyahu want this violence, it is unclear whether either has the capacity to restrain their own extremists or the will to take political risks by engaging them.

The stakes are high enough that an American diplomatic intervention is certainly worthwhile. Jerusalem is an explosive and emotional issue that reverberates around the Arab world, as epitomized by recent ISIS videos inspired by the violence.  Moreover, while there have been no indications of a major escalation in such a delicate environment, one misstep or provocative action could lead to an explosion that neither side wants. 
The violence could also have implications for U.S.-Israel relations. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have signaled a desire to make their upcoming November 9 meeting a moment to come together after a very difficult debate on Iran. But if the violence persists, this issue will force its way onto the agenda, making it more difficult to simply keep the focus on easier issues such as future defense cooperation and joint regional security efforts.
Goldenberg is available for interviews on the crisis in Israel. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...