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Al-Aqsa crisis is Tillerson’s first real Mideast test

The stars were perfectly aligned for Rex Tillerson. As secretary of state under a Republican president whose party enjoys a majority in both sides of the house, and given the massive damage done to the US interest and traditional allies by the Obama Doctrine, Tillerson could not have had a clearer mandate. This is particularly true given that President Donald Trump seems to have got it right regarding Iran and the controversial nuclear deal.

Unlike his predecessor who — intentionally or not — turned a blind eye to Tehran’s support for terror and its damaging behavior, Trump sought to rectify the situation and reassure long-term regional allies in a bid to undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s “leading from behind” approach (whatever that is).

It is extremely significant that Trump has made it very clear that he is serious about trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Right after his visit to Saudi Arabia in May — his first foreign trip as president — he made Israel his second stop. He was warmly greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who both seemed willing to work closely with the new US administration to get the ball rolling again.

Yet there is only so much the US president can do personally. International affairs should be handled by his secretary of state, and Tillerson has been doing a good job. But he is now faced with his first real regional test: The escalating situation at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Serious consequences

Surely Tillerson must realize that this is not merely an Israeli-Palestinian matter. Given that Al-Aqsa is considered the third-holiest mosque in Islam, the issue affects more than 2 billion Muslims worldwide (nearly 30 percent of the world’s population). It also puts moderate and peace-advocating Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in a complicated situation. Both countries are US allies and are directly impacted by the escalation.

The US secretary of state must realize that this is not merely an Israeli-Palestinian matter. Given that Al-Aqsa is considered the third-holiest mosque in Islam, the issue affects more than 2 billion Muslims worldwide.

Faisal J. Abbas 

Neighboring Jordan, whose king is a Hashemite (a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad), has long been entrusted to act as guardian of Al-Aqsa, a temporary solution that has been accepted by all stakeholders given that Amman has signed a peace treaty with Israel. Jordan feels betrayed by Israel’s unreasonable handling of the situation.

The Palestinian Authority has halted all communications with Tel Aviv, the situation is brewing on the ground, and there is technically nothing that could prevent another Intifida (uprising). Should that happen, Jordan (whose population is predominately originally Palestinian) will definitely be impacted.

Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam and land of the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah, has a direct stake in seeing the situation calm down. In the past, Riyadh has used its weight in Washington and its influence on Arab and Muslim countries to contain the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

As a force for stability that is renowned for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which until today remains the region’s best hope for peace, Saudi Arabia deserves global partners to be equally concerned and offer help when such a crisis happens.

It is odd that Tillerson — who hails from an oil background — showed much more personal interest in the Qatari crisis (a standoff that has had no real humanitarian impact and a very limited regional one, as confirmed even by Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim himself during his recent speech) than in trying to seriously defuse the ticking time bomb in Jerusalem.

If he is not already on a plane, he should head back to the Middle East immediately to talk to Palestinians and Israelis. At the moment the matter is still containable, but as a wise US politician by the name of Henry Kissinger once said: “An issue ignored is a crisis ensured.”

To the Israelis, I repeat what our Arab News columnist Yossi Mekelberg said recently: “The metal detectors (around Al-Aqsa) are not worth insisting on considering the political cost. Israel would be foolish and irresponsible to allow them to become a test of its control of the holy sites.”

It would also be wise — especially given the sensitivity of this particular issue, and with such uncertainty and unprecedented turbulence in the region — to contain the situation diplomatically and as quickly as possible.

Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas