As Temple Mount tensions persist, where’s Donald Trump?

With violence between Israelis and Palestinians threatening to spiral out of control, and amid many calls for restraint from the international community, one person has remained conspicuously silent: Donald Trump.

Two days after a terror attack in Halamish in which a grandfather and two of his children were stabbed to death, and after a week of clashes over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that have seen several Palestinian protesters killed, the US president has yet to comment. Some of his closest confidants are said to be involved in ongoing efforts to calm the situation, but Trump himself has not yet made any public effort to help restore calm.

The White House is holding talks with Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and other regional players in a bid to quell the current wave of violence, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Saturday night, quoting Israeli and Arab officials.

Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, who reportedly discussed the matter last week with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is said to be leading the US effort, together with Trump’s special envoy to the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, his ambassador in Tel Aviv, David Friedman, and the US consul-general in Jerusalem, Donald Blome.

But Kushner’s team is working behind the scenes.

US presidential adviser Jared Kushner meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)

On Wednesday, the State Department issued a statement saying the US was “very concerned about tensions” surrounding the Temple Mount, and calling on Israel and Jordan to “find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo.”

But the statement was vague, and did not indicate how the administration viewed Israel’s decision to install metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount following the July 14 attack in which three Arab Israelis shot dead two on-duty Israeli police officers there with guns they had smuggled into the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Mount’s Waqf Muslim authority has successfully discouraged worshipers from walking through the gates, and they have instead prayed outside. Numerous Arab leaders have demanded that Israel remove the metal detectors.

On Saturday night, the Middle East Quartet released a statement strongly condemning “acts of terror,” and, noting the “particular sensitivities surrounding the holy sites in Jerusalem,” urging all sides to “demonstrate maximum restraint, refrain from provocative actions and work towards de-escalating the situation.”

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 20, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Though his name was not mentioned in the statement, Greenblatt represents the US in the Quartet, and would have been party to its drafting. But the vague statement carries less weight than clear US intervention would.

Trump has declared his intention to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and has invested considerable time and effort trying to bring the two sides closer together. He has established good relations with all key players in the region and potentially holds considerable influence over them. To date, in this crisis, he has chosen not to use it.

It’s not as though he’s been hesitant to make his voice heard on Israeli-Palestinian issues: Trump has already spoken out on such abidingly sensitive matters as settlements and Palestinian incitement.

Trump’s advisers would likely urge him to proceed with caution, cognizant that any crisis surrounding the Temple Mount can snowball from a local affair into a religious war that sets the region ablaze. The White House would also seek to tread carefully lest it be seen as biased toward either party, thus jeopardizing its declared interest in restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Careful diplomacy would therefore seem wise. But careful need not mean private. The prospects of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only recede further so long as the current Temple Mount crisis rumbles on, whereas the US president weighing in constructively might have an immediate cooling effect.

Thus far, nothing is known about how the president feels about the current situation. He was likely briefed on it, but has kept his silence.

With passions so high, it is difficult to predict how a clear-cut US presidential statement assigning blame and/or defining a solution would be received by the sides.

If the president were to declare flat out that it was absolutely legitimate for Israel to have installed metal detectors to secure the holy site, and that such a move does not constitute a change to the sensitive status quo there, that might alienate Arab and Muslim leaders. Or it might move the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, to lower the volume of their protest, allowing it to gradually quieten down.

Israeli border policemen install metal detectors outside the Lion's Gate, a main entrance to the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 16, 2017, after security forces reopened the ultra-sensitive site, whose closure after a deadly attack earlier in the week sparked anger. (AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)

Were he to firmly declare the metal detectors an unnecessary infringement on worshipers’ rights, and publicly urge Israel to reinstate the status quo ante, he might infuriate Israel. Or possibly provide Netanyahu with an urgent imperative to find an alternate arrangement.

A more subtle intervention, though, could reasonably be expected to be welcomed by all sides. Were the president to personally urge the various parties to seek a mutually acceptable solution, and offer American good offices to help achieve that, it is hard to imagine that anybody would reject him.

When the leader of the free world speaks, the Middle East does sometimes listen. The more so when the leader of the free world is unpredictable, and when many of the parties involved in this crisis share an interest in staying on his good side.

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