Michael Bell is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.
Crude violence has become Jerusalem's leitmotif within the space of days: Palestinian terrorists running down Israelis in the streets, a bus driver's possible lynching and, most shockingly, Tuesday's slaughter at the Kehilot Bnei Torah synagogue. These atrocities reflect an explosive, chaotic situation in this sacred city, where there seems to be no solution, barring a far-reaching but seemingly impossible peace agreement.
As it stands, accusations and counteraccusations run unchecked. Naftali Bennett, head of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, accused Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of complicity, if not active participation, in the violence. (The president added fuel to the fire by sending a message of sympathy to the family of one Palestinian perpetrator who died in a shootout.) But while Mr. Abbas may be ineffective, the depth of the Palestinian Authority's anti-terrorist co-operation with Israel puts the lie to the notion of his complicity – this is emotional and overheated rhetoric, a trait political leaders of all stripes seem almost inevitably drawn to.
There is no doubt that Israeli security authorities will clamp down further on Palestinians' freedoms, especially those of Israeli Arabs, because they can move and organize to disrupt Israeli life more easily than those in the West Bank and Gaza. The degree of this clampdown – and how successful it will be – remains to be determined. Yoram Cohen, director of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, testified before the Knesset, in seeming contradiction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the perpetrators of the synagogue massacre had never been judged security risks and were not connected to any political organization. The West Bank, Jerusalem and Israeli Arab society are nevertheless penetrated by Hamas, the militant group whose frustrations, language and actions have helped create this volcanic environment.
Whatever the case, what choice do the Israelis have but to clamp down? No government can accept that its citizens be massacred. The Israeli challenge is to permanently control a situation where Palestinians feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are increasingly deprived of basic human rights in what seems like a one-state solution, a greater Israel, that excludes them from any pretense of participation.
Having lived in Israel for nine years on three separate occasions between 1975 and 2003, and having visited many times since, I must confess that I don't know the answer. If there is one, it consists of two viable states, Israel and Palestine, along the lines of the recently abandoned John Kerry initiative, the exact contents of which the U.S. administration will not discuss publicly. Neither side will settle for less than what they see as their dignity.
Differing cultures, identities, ideologies, customs, images and ethnicities seem bred in the bone here, propagating exclusivity coupled with a consequent and enduring distrust of the other. The synagogue massacre is only the most recent manifestation of the evil effects of such mindsets, demonstrating yet more clearly that the two sides cannot live together with any semblance of normalcy. Israeli practices cannot be exempted from this conundrum, nor can be the decades-long refusal of many Palestinians to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, whatever its boundaries. But greater Israel is a breeding ground for terror.
Nothing is more sensitive than the holy sites of Jerusalem, to which both sides attach their very being. Exclusive control of the Old City by one or the other is anathema to the other. It would violate what each sees as its sacred trust.
Rightly or wrongly, the Palestinians live in fear that Israeli ultranationalists will erode the longstanding modus vivendi of Muslim control over prayer on the Haram al-Sharif, known to Israelis as the Temple Mount. Having seen what they view as their homeland, including East Jerusalem, increasingly subject to land confiscation, housing demolition and Israeli settlement growth, Palestinians now live in an atmosphere of fear and distrust respecting the holy sites.
With the growth of the religious right in Israel, tensions are high and sensitivities extreme. Ultrareligious Jews are seen as eroding the sanctity of the control Muslims now have. Messianic militants, led by Yehuda Glick, demand that both Jews and Muslims have equal prayer rights, which would effectively end the status quo established in 1967 – a development Muslims would view, rightly or wrongly, as their final humiliation. Despite his own accusations about Palestinian culpability in the violence, Mr. Netanyahu has reiterated commitment to the status quo.
In this chaotic situation, the question is whether Mr. Netanyahu can rein in the violence, let alone the embattled Mr. Abbas. I doubt it – instead, we may be in for more bloodshed.