AS A DISPUTE over land and statehood, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is combustible enough. But recent clashes over the site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif are injecting religious passions into one of the world’s most dangerous confrontations. Extremists on both sides are playing with fire. But since Israel is the dominant power, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears primary responsibility for smothering that fire before it erupts into a much larger conflagration.
The current crisis originates in Palestinian fear and anger over archaeological excavations near, but not underneath, the Al Aqsa mosque. The digs are under the control of an ultra-nationalist Israeli group intent on justifying a Jewish claim to Jerusalem by locating remnants of what is called the City of David. Those excavations have weakened the foundations of nearby Arab houses and led critics across the Muslim world to warn of a plot to cause the collapse of the Al Aqsa mosque.
The furor over the excavations has given new force to Palestinian demands that Israel stop settling Jews in East Jerusalem, which would make it much harder to divide the ancient city between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel maintains that the influx of Jews into East Jerusalem is a simple matter of families buying homes in a neighborhood that appeals to them. But that’s not the whole story. The Israeli government knows that at least some of the people behind the purchases of Palestinian homes have a political motive.
Jordan, the Arab state most friendly to Israel, has called on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to halt the excavations and to stop efforts to change the population balance between Arabs and Israelis in East Jerusalem. If President Obama wants to preserve hope of a two-state peace agreement, he must persuade Netanyahu to suspend the influx of Israeli Jews into East Jerusalem and put a stop to recklessly provocative excavations. The surest way to scuttle peace talks before they get started is for one side to give extremists on the other side a reason to call for martyrdom and holy war.