When I was director general of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we had a delegation that visited Abu Dhabi. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque there is one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world. When we went to the mosque, there was no problem with my wearing a kippah, because the United Arab Emirates believes in universalism. Inside the mosque, I looked up at the ceiling and saw security cameras — the very cameras that we wanted to put into the Al-Aqsa mosque, that everyone made a big deal about. But in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, nobody had opposed it.
Later I researched what happens at the Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, looking over pictures and movies, and I saw the cameras had been installed there. So, cameras were okay for the Great Mosque of Mecca and for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, but for some reason, those responsible for security on the Muslim side felt inhibited about authorizing cameras in the Al-Aqsa mosque. And that was just an invitation to disaster in subsequent years.
The Muslim Brotherhood is behind the incitement
Sheikh Raed Salah heads the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The Islamic Movement in Israel is really a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Salah has been one of the great copywriters of incitement that we’ve had to deal with. Israel has imprisoned him for incitement multiple times. He causes a lot of trouble.
When I was first in the Israeli government, between 1996 and 1998, I had to deal with the after-effects of Salah’s incitement. For example, one of his ideas was to go up to the Temple Mount and clean out the water cisterns there, and then to bring water to the Temple Mount from the Zamzam Spring in Mecca. Now, it wasn’t just our security forces whose eyebrows were raised when they heard about the Zamzam plan. The Arabs themselves were concerned.
Salah lives in the Galilee, where he sponsors mass rallies with huge placards in Arabic saying “Al-Aqsa is in danger.” He was really fanning the flames of Muslim concern that the Jews were going to take over Al-Aqsa and kick them out, though no one was planning that. No one had talked about that. But it was a very dangerous conspiracy theory to promote. And it took a lot of work on the part of Israel to quell those concerns.
This has somewhat cooled off, but it’s something we have to watch very carefully. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are fundamental to Israeli democracy, and we have to protect that. But we’re also working in a context where religious incitement is rampant in the Middle East. You have to reach some kind of balance so that you can keep Jerusalem open and free and not have a city where there are concerns of religious jihad and things of that sort, and maintaining this careful balance is something Israel has specialized in.
Prayer on the Temple Mount
In 1967, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister in the Six-Day War, set the rule that Jews could visit the Temple Mount but couldn’t pray there. Today, by popular demand, Jews do pray on the Temple Mount, though privately and not in obviously organized public prayers. The rules have changed, and I think it’s a good thing.
When we visit religious sites around the world, for example in Rome, if you go to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City you will see people there of many different faiths, and Saint Peter’s is open to all religions. It is extremely important that Israel, as a caretaker of the holy sites in Jerusalem, should ensure that all religious sites are free and open. That’s what others are doing who are part of our international coalition of democracies, and that’s what we should do.
I don’t think we should force ourselves down the throats of Muslims. To the contrary, we have to respect their religious sensitivities. But at the same time, a place like the Temple Mount should be open for all faiths. And frankly, I believe strongly that only Israel can protect the freedom of religion for all the great faiths. We’ve done it in the past, and we’ll do it in the future. But it’s going to take a lot of expert diplomacy to make it work.
The role of the media
The media have a huge responsibility in these matters. They shouldn’t become conduits for a whole mythology that somebody plans to destroy somebody else’s religion. You also have to have an awareness about the sensitivity of certain periods and make sure that Muslims feel reassured that their interests are protected. Don’t send correspondents to sensitive areas in the Muslim world at sensitive times and have them run around like a bull in a china shop, creating a lot of historical animosity.
I believe we can coexist. I have been having meetings with Muslim colleagues from the Arab world and we demonstrate understanding for each other. That’s what has to happen. I believe it can happen and that’s what we should be promoting.
The changing role of Saudi Arabia
Back in the early 1990s, I wrote a book on Saudi Arabia with the provocative title, “Hatred’s Kingdom,” and have continued to monitor what was going on in Saudi Arabia since. A lot of the early commitments of the jihadi world to religious war came about in the years 1998 up until 2005. Then, after 9/11, a rethink occurred in Saudi Arabia. I noticed very important changes of policy that didn’t get the coverage they should have received in the mass media.
When I wrote my book about Saudi Arabia in 2003, the Saudis were financing from 50% to 70% of the budget of Hamas through huge international charities. Then, after the second intifada, the second uprising among the Palestinians, we had lots of evidence about how the money was moving and why. But the Saudis all of a sudden stopped supporting Hamas. The money afterwards came from Iran, not from Saudi Arabia. That is worth noting and giving them credit for, because it is a fundamental change of policy which may make possible an understanding and even an eventual peace arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Not everything is pessimistic.
The growing Iranian nuclear threat
In terms of geopolitics, we have a rising danger in the east with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program and says Israel should be wiped off the map. We have to be very cognizant of what they’re doing and take care to neutralize a program like that.
I think it’s possible that the states of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf states and Israel, can find common ground to work together, particularly to stop the Iranian threat. Iran doesn’t have to be the inevitable enemy of Israel. Iran and Israel got along before and could get along again.
But there has to be a fundamental change of behavior because, along with the nuclear weapons program, Iran has been active in promoting the spread of revolutionary organizations across the Middle East, from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east. These organizations threaten the stability of a wide variety of regimes, and they are a threat to Israel. We have to work together with our Arab neighbors, particularly in the Gulf, and see if we can create a more stable region. The basis for doing that is there. What would make a big difference is if the United States and the European powers would work with us to support such an effort if we are undertaking it ourselves.
Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.