Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Was Iran Behind the Recent Violence on the Temple Mount?

The latest campaign against Israel has all the hallmarks of an Islamic Republic operation

Liel Leibovitz
July 28, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

So, what just happened on the Temple Mount?

The timeline’s a blur of shrieks and stabs and stone-throws, so let’s try to put things in order: Three Palestinian terrorists murder two Israeli police officers. Israel responds by placing metal detectors at the entrance to the compound. The Palestinians portray the simple security measure as a Jewish attempt to wrestle the holy spot away from Islam. Violence ensues, claiming the lives of three Israelis slaughtered in their kitchen as they were celebrating the birth of a baby. A Jordanian teenager attempts to stab an Israeli security officer in a diplomatic residence in Amman and is shot and killed. The Jordanian government, violating international accords, holds the officer hostage, demanding he be interrogated by the local police. The Palestinians demand the metal detectors be removed. Other Arab nations agree. Benjamin Netanyahu caves in, taking the detectors down and promising they’ll be replaced with other high-tech surveillance systems.

If you’ve ever played chess competitively, or participated in combat, or engaged in any other activity in which victory hinged on strategic calculus, you’ll have no problem seeing this scenario for what it truly was: a carefully planned, neatly executed military operation. Even in a neighborhood as chaotic as the Middle East, coincidence alone cannot explain a series of occurrences that lead a powerful regional player, Israel, to fold and hand its mortal enemies a stinging victory. So what happened to make Israel retreat?

The answer to this question depends on who you believe set the recent chain of events in motion. Suspicion first falls on the Palestinians: Anti-Israeli incitement on Fatah-run media channels remains relentless, and the Palestinian Authority prioritizes the murder of Jews by offering the perpetrators and their families generous financial compensation. It stands to reason that Mahmoud Abbas pulled the trigger on the operation, or, at the very least, seized on a lone-wolf attack committed by three Palestinian family members to force Netanyahu into a stalemate.

It’s a reasonable theory, but it’s most likely wrong. If you’ve been following the P.A. for a while, you know that it is a street brawler, not a career boxer—it is rarely capable of thinking past the latest conflagration, and when it accidentally starts something it knows it can’t finish, it seeks a swift resolution, keenly aware that without Israel’s security cooperation it would soon implode into civil war.

Hamas, the next culprit in line, is a more likely candidate. The organization, after all, has made a career of provoking Israel into retaliating and then whipping up the rest of the world into a frenzy of condemnations aimed at the Jewish state. Then again, the organization is rarely shy about claiming responsibility for its attacks, and even though it praised the Temple Mount shooters and argued that the shooting was the “legitimate right for our people and the best evidence of their unity in resisting the brutal occupation,” it is likely not behind the attack. If it were, Israel would know, and an armed conflict would likely ensue, as it did when Hamas kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in 2014, an act that led to Operation Protective Edge.

After you discount a host of other regional bystanders—like Jordan, where another weak regime depends on Israeli security cooperation for its very survival—you’re left with one conclusion, backed by no discernible evidence but eminently logical and hard to refute: The architect of the recent wave of violence is Iran.

For one thing, the Islamic Republic is the financier and chief cheerleader of virtually every anti-Israeli armed operation, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas in Gaza. For another, the three terrorists whose shots set this crisis in motion all come from the Arab Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, a stronghold for the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. The movement’s leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, was imprisoned by Israel until recently, in large part for having contacts with an Iranian agent. The movement’s recent crown jewels are two groups—Mourabitoun and Mourabitat—devoted to promoting unrest on the Temple Mount and accusing Israel of plotting a holy war on Islam. This religious underpinning, too, reads like the work of Tehran: Rather than merely force Israel into a tactical defeat, which Hamas, say, or even Hezbollah has tried to accomplish repeatedly, Iran has always made clear that its conflict with Israel was theological in nature. When you heard imams anywhere from Jerusalem to Riverside, California, thunder this week and last about the Jews defying Allah’s will and desecrating his holiest sites, you were quite likely listening to the viral rhetoric of Iranian mullahs.

You can hear that rhetoric, quite literally, if you stand close enough to Israel’s northern border. When Moscow announced on Monday—incidentally or not, the very day when the conflict on the Temple Mount reached its sour resolution—that it would move its military police to monitor two safe zones in Syria, including one near the Golan Heights, Israel grumbled. Yaakov Amidror, a former adviser to Netanyahu and one of the country’s most astute national security thinkers, said the Russian move did not take Israel’s security needs into consideration. “We understand the threats which emerge from this arrangement which was done without taking into consideration what Israel has to do to guarantee its ability to defend itself,” he said. With Hezbollah agents now free to move in behind Moscow’s monitors a stone’s throw from the Israeli border, with Iran having an uninterrupted channel for funneling cash and arms to anti-Israeli militants, and with the United States having taken no action to defend Israel against such a blatant threat, Netanyahu must have realized how grim his situation truly was.

How was this operation executed? How did Iranian cash and intel find its way to Umm al-Fahm and Jerusalem and beyond? That’s a question for Israel’s capable intelligence services. But Netanyahu, a supremely gifted political operative, didn’t need to stick around and wait for an answer. He understood two things: first, that he was witnessing a finely orchestrated play unfurling at his doorstep; and second, that if he hit back hard, Donald Trump wouldn’t be there to back him up. And so he played the only card available to him—backing down and thanking both Trump and the Jordanians for their part in de-escalating the conflict, which is all the proof you need that neither the Jordanians nor Trump had any real role to play. National security isn’t an Academy Awards acceptance speech; you don’t publicly thank the people who helped you, only those you need to make sure don’t screw you over in the future.

Whoever was behind this recent gambit would likely try again soon. And next time, it’s not so clear that political know-how will save us from the brink of disaster.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.