Sharon’s Sword of Damocles

On May 14, 2003, Israeli Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi commented that Jews will soon be able to visit and pray at Islam’s third holiest shrine, Jerusalem’s Nobel Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The director of the Muslim Trust that governs the site reacted immediately saying that non-Muslims are not welcome. “There is no change in the decision of not allowing non-Muslims to enter the place,” emphasized the Muslim official.

That decision came shortly after September 28, 2000, when then-candidate for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by over 1,000 Israeli police officers visited the holy site. Ehud Barak, Israel’s Prime Minster at the time rejected US urgings to prohibit Sharon from entering the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount stating that the visit was a domestic electioneering act directed against him by a political opponent. Palestinians saw Sharon’s visit as highly provocative.

The following day a large number of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and a large Israeli police force confronted each other. According to the US Department of State, “Palestinians held large demonstrations and threw stones at [the Israeli] police. Police used rubber-coated metal bullets and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators, killing 4 persons and injuring about 200.” Thus began what has become known as the current Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the demise of the Oslo peace process, which Sharon opposed all along.

History tells that the Palestinian reaction to Sharon’s incursion was predictable. In August 1929, Sharon’s political mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, had attempted to challenge the Muslim Trust’s control over the Western Wall of the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. In the resulting riots, 133 Jewish Palestinians were killed and 330 injured while British governing forces also killed 116 Arabs and injured 232, thus igniting disharmony between Palestine’s Jews and non-Jews.

Such lessons of history are well understood by the Jordanians who will host today’s meeting of President Bush with the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers. “The hectic campaign being waged, with backing from officials of the Israeli government, to open the Mosque to the Jews, is in fact tantamount to laying the foundation for a destructive religious war, the consequences of which nobody knows,” said Abdullah Kana’an, the chairman of the Jordanian Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs.

Despite Sharon’s reservations to the Road Map, the Bush Administration continued its preparation for today’s meeting to implement the replacement of the Oslo process by the Road Map towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Administration may be happy thinking that it has successfully sidelined Sharon’s objections.

Moreover, the Administration has the support of the Arab states, whose plan to recognize Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and solving the Palestinian refugee issue was announced last year. It is also flush with popularity at home and the endorsement of its Road Map by most prominent Jewish Americans.

The Bush Administration also thinks that it can penalize Israel should it refuse to comply with the Road Map. Such penalties might include an “examination” of the use of US supplied weapons in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and the suspension of the recently approved $9 billion in emergency American aid.

While opponents of the Road Map shudder at the use of such sanctions, they may have nothing to worry about. It was no coincidence that the Israeli announcement on the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount visits came as Washington was telling Israel that despite its reservations, there would be no changes to the Road Map.

Having well learned Jabotinsky’s lessons on religious provocations, Sharon may override the Muslim Trust’s prohibition and authorize visits to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount in an tempt to escape any US pressure. The resulting riots will be difficult for the incapacitated Palestinian Authority to contain. Political demonstrations in Arab and Muslim countries will be equally difficult to suppress. Another ensuing causality will be the interests of the US, perceived as Israel’s patron and protector, especially in the war against terror.

That is the sword of Damocles that Sharon holds over the Bush Administration, just as in the original story Told By Cicero, the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse suspended a sword by a hair over the head of Damocles to remind him that life is not always happiness and that tragedy might befall him at any moment.

With plans for President Bush’s re-election in the works and his Christian right constituency already opposing the Road Map, how will the Administration react if Sharon authorizes such provocative visits to escape US pressure? Will it try to save the Road Map by pressing Sharon to rescind the decision, or will it abandon the Road Map and quickly return to the safety of pleasing a key constituency and hope for more pro-Republican Jewish votes than ever?

ISSAM MUFID NASHASHIBI, director of Deir Yassin Remembered, is a freelance writer on Middle East issues. He can be reached at