Last February, at a conference for the defense of Jerusalem in Qatar, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Arabs to visit East Jerusalem and the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The declared objective was to enhance and support the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem and the Old City and break Israel’s "siege" of the city.
Abbas’ appeal was answered by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who sent a member of the royal family, Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad who holds the religion "file" at the palace in Amman, to pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque. Under the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Jordan maintains a special status with regard to the Jerusalem holy places, including those of Christianity. Jordanians head the Jerusalem Waqf (Islamic endowments fund) and the Greek Orthodox and Lutheran church establishments in Jerusalem.
A few weeks ago, Prince Ghazi returned to the Mount and the mosques in the company of Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and a Yemeni Islamic scholar, al-Habib al-Jaafari. Palestinian Authority Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash announced that more visits were planned. Lately, Qatari and Bahraini religious figures have made the al-Aqsa pilgrimage. And last Easter, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher witnessed a dramatic rise in visits by Egyptian Copts who took advantage of the passing a month earlier of Pope Shenouda III, who had banned such visits.
Obviously, these visits could not have been possible without some measure of coordination with Israeli border and security authorities. But there is no evidence of specific Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Jordanian connivance in arranging them. Assuming the military regime in Cairo approved the visits by the mufti and the Copts, the ruling Egyptian generals were apparently seeking to send a positive message to Israel and the United States.
Not surprisingly, radical Arab Muslims have erupted in protest. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the best-known Sunni Islamic scholar in the Middle East, reputedly issued a fatwa banning such acts of "normalization" with Israel by Arabs other than Palestinians. Pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi daily newspaper called for Gomaa to be removed from his post. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood denounced the mufti’s visit and summoned him to explain his actions. So did the Egyptian secular opposition–not to be outdone by the Islamists in opposing "normalization".
What shall we make of this flurry of activity and controversy in the midst of a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process and an Arab Middle East torn by revolution? There are Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and broader Arab dimensions of interest.
Israel has long argued that Israeli rule alone can guarantee free and universal access to Islamic, Christian and Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. It can cite the visits as affirmation of its contention. Yet this Israeli claim is highly flawed. Citing security reasons, Israel has for many years prevented numerous Palestinian Muslims from even entering the city. Nor do non-orthodox Jews and many Jewish women feel they have equal access to the Western Wall. Moreover, for some time now Israeli Jews have been forbidden by the Waqf from entering the two mosques on the Temple Mount, and Israel has avoided protesting or forcing the issue, presumably in the hope of maintaining quiet on the Mount.
But Israeli rule in Jerusalem is not the only explanation for Arab anger at the visits. There is a perception in certain Arab circles that the Palestinian Authority is essentially a lackey of Israel. To take a totally different example, bank managers in Beirut refuse to accept money transfers to Lebanese citizens from banks in Ramallah, arguing that they are "Israeli banks". So much for Palestinian autonomy in their eyes.
We can at least hope that the current wave of Arab visits to Jerusalem’s holy places will weaken that perception. Abbas is right: visits like these help his case by reaffirming that Jerusalem is as important to Muslims and Christians as it is to Jews. They also affirm that boycotting Israel is not a formula for softening its conditions for a two-state solution. On the other hand, the denunciation by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Hamas in Gaza, could exacerbate Egyptian-Palestine Liberation Organization relations, to the detriment of peace.
Turning to Jordan, King Abdullah II presumably launched the visits in the hope of fortifying his Islamic credentials in a rapidly Islamizing Middle East, even as he takes steps to distance Jordanian Islamists from the centers of power. Certainly, the affair points to a shared perception with Abbas regarding the Islamist threat and creative ways to counter it.
As for the Palestinian leader, the call to visit the Jerusalem mosques was characteristic of his approach to peace and a two-state solution in recent years: launch provocative initiatives in every regional and international direction (membership in the United Nations, reconciliation with Hamas and visits to Jerusalem) and drop hints about recourse to extreme measures (intifada, dismantling the PA, resignation and detaining critical journalists and bloggers). All this, while confronting an uninterested, settlement-hungry Israeli government with hitherto unheard of pre-conditions for renewing negotiations.
Is there a viable strategy here somewhere?