The Middle East Channel

Libya suspects head of Islamist group as commander of consulate attack

Libyan authorities have said they suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala, the leader of Libya's Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia, to have led the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Witnesses have reported seeing Abu Khattala at the site, but his exact role is unclear, as is whether or not he shared leadership with others. But, the allegations provide the most direct link yet between Ansar al-Sharia and the assault. The F.B.I. has been investigating the attack from Tripoli, almost 400 miles from Benghazi, and a U.S. official said they had been tracking Abu Khattala who remains at large. Having not yet established central control of security since last year's revolution, Libyan authorities rely on local militias for law enforcement. The government-allied militias say that haven't been directed to arrest Abu Khattala, and the government is concerned about exacerbating tensions between rival militia groups.

Syria

Syrian human rights groups say that at least 28,000 people have "disappeared" in Syria since the beginning of the 19-month long uprising, and some estimate the number of missing to be as high as 80,000. According to a director at the online activist group Avazza, "Syrians are being plucked off the street by Syrian security forces and paramilitaries and being ‘disappeared' into torture cells. Whether it is women buying groceries or farmers going for fuel, nobody is safe." The group plans to request an investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Damascus has started to feel the strain of the country's civil war, from which  it had been relatively isolated until recently. Meanwhile, U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lahkdar Brahimi, has warned of regional spillover of the conflict. After meeting with Lebanese officials seeking international support for a ceasefire over an upcoming holiday, which Turkey and Iran have backed, he said, "The crisis cannot remain within Syrian borders indefinitely. Either it will be addressed or it will increase ... and be all-consuming." Brahimi's remarks came shortly before reports of Syrian and Lebanese border clashes.

Headlines  

  • After multiple postponements, West Bank Palestinians will vote in municipal elections Saturday, which Hamas will boycott. 
  • An Iranian-American dual citizen from Texas has pleaded guilty to plotting the assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States last year, at the direction of Iranian military officials.
  • A drone strike, likely by the United Strikes, killed seven suspected al Qaeda militants in the southern Yemeni city of Jaar Thursday, in the second such attack this month.

Arguments and Analysis

The Drones Are Coming to Libya' (Eric Posner, Slate)

"After the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi last month, President Obama vowed to hunt down the killers and bring them to justice. There is a good chance that this means that they will be incinerated by missiles fired from drones. If so, the United States will have used drones to kill members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya-six countries in just a few years. Mali may take its turn as the seventh. This startlingly fast spread of drone warfare signifies a revolution in foreign affairs. And, for good or for ill, in an unprecedented way it has transformed the U.S. presidency into the most powerful national office in at least half a century.

In the past, presidents faced two major obstacles when trying to use force abroad. The first was technological. The available options-troops, naval vessels, or air power-posed significant risks to American military personnel, cost a lot of money, proved effective only under limited conditions, or all of the above. Dead and maimed soldiers, hostages, the massive expense of a large-scale military operation, and backlash from civilian casualties can destroy a presidency, as Vietnam and Iraq showed."

Turkey's President Wants War in Syria. Turks Don't.' (Suzy Hansen, The New Republic)

"Just two years ago, as part of its "zero problems with neighbors" policy, Turkey removed visa requirements with several countries, including Syria, its neighbor to the south. Thousands of middle class Syrians flooded the 500-mile border, visiting the malls of Gaziantep or scouting for business partners amongst Turkey's vibrant merchant class. It was a time of great enthusiasm about Turkey across the Middle East, the heyday of the Mavi Marmara affair, when the Eastern-looking Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to be standing up to Israel, even the United States. Arabs embraced Turkish soap operas and named their baby boys Tayyip. Erdogan was best friend to everyone, and on especially good terms with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two were photographed palling around in the sunny Aegean town of Bodrum. Erdogan called Assad "brother.""

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

The Middle East Channel

Status quo on the Temple Mount?

Recent developments in Jerusalem pose a threat to the stability of the city and to the region. The world saw a preview over the recent Jewish holidays, when activists challenged the Israeli-imposed ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif. Sensitivities at the site tend to peak during any holiday season; however, these latest challenges cannot be dismissed as routine or benign. The radicalization in the political discourse in Israel and the growing power of an emboldened group of Israeli activists focused on the Temple Mount are today coalescing into concrete initiatives that aspire to alter the status quo at the site for the first time since 1967. With Israeli elections approaching, the temptation of right-wing politicians to pander to Temple Mount activists will grow. In parallel, as the radicalization trend within Israel continues a settler-inspired "price tag" incident at the site becomes increasingly likely.

The site at the center of this brewing crisis is revered in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, site of the ancient first and second Jewish Temples. For Muslims, since 705 AD the same spot has been home to the third holiest site in Islam, al Aqsa Mosque. For some dispensationalist Christians, restoration of Jewish contol over the site is an essential component in bringing about the "end of days."

Israel captured the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif on June 7, 1967, at the height of the 1967 War. Arriving on the scene, legendary Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan spotted Israeli flags flying over the Mount and swiftly ordered them removed, reportedly stating: We don't need a holy war.

Dayan's order reflected his visceral understanding of the implications of Israeli control over this sensitive, contested site, as did his decision to leave a large degree of authority -- including control of all but one of the gates to the Mount -- in the hands of Islamic authorities, known as the Waqf. This same understanding led Israeli courts from the outset to interpret Israel's first post-1967 war piece of legislation, the Law for the Protection of Holy Sites, as making the exercise of religious freedoms subordinate to considerations like public safety and security. All Israeli governments, backed by the court, have subsequently prohibited Jewish prayer on the Mount -- a prohibition that is also consistent with the predominant interpretations of Jewish rabbinic law.

A few Jewish activists challenged the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif status quo from the start. They aspired to turn the esplanade into a site of Jewish worship, often belittling or denying the Muslim attachments to the site, and with some among them speaking openly of their desire to erase the mosques at the site and replace them with the third Jewish temple. They launched perennially unsuccessful appeals to the court demanding the right to pray on the Mount. Over time, they made inroads into mainstream Israeli society by focusing on issues that appear politically innocent -- like protecting Jewish artifacts at the site.

Their cause was aided by the phenomenon in the Arab and Muslims worlds of "Temple Mount denial." Former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat denied any Jewish connection to the Mount. Others portray Jews as usurpers on the Mount, with no genuine attachments. Muslim extremists regularly claim that Israel is seeking to destroy al-Haram al-Sharif. The result is a vicious cycle, with the discourse ceded to extremes on both sides.

And not to be left out, extreme elements among (mainly) American evangelical Christians have increasingly targeted the Muslim presence on the Mount, as part of a dispensationalist agenda, which includes replacing the mosques there with the Third Temple.

The Temple Mount movement has grown today into a cluster of organizations that boast thousands of supporters, Jews and Christians, in Israel and around the world. As the ideological goalposts in Israel have moved to the right, the Israeli government has contributed to the movement's efforts -- evidenced by the ministry of education's August 2012 announcement that 30,000 Israeli pupils had recently visited the Mount as part of its controversial "National Heritage Project," something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The emboldening of the Temple Mount activists was on stark throughout the summer of 2012, with events peaking during the weeklong Jewish Sukkot Festival. Temple Mount activists, including Knesset members, engaged in almost daily provocations, leading to clashes. Accusations were bandied about equating the ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount to the denial of Jewish religious freedoms in the Soviet Union, comparing those denied the right to pray on the Mount to Jewish martyrs of the Middle Ages, and implying that the government has adopted a Nazi policy by making the Mount "Judenrein."

This emboldened activism comes in tandem with the emergence, for the first time, of a clear and serious political agenda: to force a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. The agenda has two prongs: legislation that would compel the government to permit Jewish prayer at the site, security concerns notwithstanding, and the promotion of a joint (or split) Jewish-Muslim control of the site, modeled on the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in Hebron.

The legislation in question enjoys support from senior members of Netanyahu's coalition and will likely be a factor in Likud party primaries, the general elections, and in the next Knesset. The campaign for more "equitable" arrangements on the Mount may find broad traction, based on the argument that this is a simple matter of fairness that everyone should support, regardless of religiosity or political views -- as if diminishing Islamic authority over the Mount for the first time since the Crusades is nothing more than a natural course of events, and that doing otherwise is intrinsically anti-Semitic.

There is ample historical evidence to show that the eruption of violence in Jerusalem is sparked by threats, real or imagined, to sacred space. Tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif -- a site that is the focus of Muslim fears and longing around the world -- would clearly fall into this category. Modeling arrangements at the site after those in place at the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- the place where Israeli-Palestinians interactions are most toxic -- is virtually guaranteed to turn relations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem into the kind of violent, zero-sum interactions that characterize Hebron.

Moreover, developments related to the Temple Mount are occurring against the backdrop of intensive settler-related activities that aspire to establish a neo-Biblical zone of exclusionary Jewish hegemony in and around the Old City. Together, these trends threaten to transform a complicated but solvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious war.

Finally, what transpires at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al Sharif will spill over into the region and beyond -- because what happens in Jerusalem doesn't stay in Jerusalem. It could drive emerging forces in the Arab world to positions ever more hostile to Israel and the West, and embolden the extremes. Already, issues surrounding the site have emerged as a fault line within the Arab world. In post-Mubarak Egypt, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo under the banner: "The liberation of Cairo requires the liberation of Jerusalem." In the run-up to Egyptian elections, some Egyptian nationalists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of promoting Al Quds as their capital. A debate is raging within the Arab world over whether Muslims should visit al-Haram al-Sharif while it is under occupation. Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah, have suggested, offering compelling reasons, that Israeli actions related to the site are sowing regional instability.

The potential destabilizing impact of tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, wisely laid down by Moshe Dayan in 1967, cannot be overstated. Accordingly, it is wise to recall the Talmudic aphorism: "Jerusalem was destroyed because it was ruled by [an overly rigorous application of] the rule of Torah."

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GettyImages)