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What will be the fate of Jerusalem under Biden?

Mr. Netanyahu’s inclination to back attempts by the UAE with Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, in the background, to muscle their way into the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif could complicate relations with Jordan and widen differences with the Palestine authority.

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Weakened by Joe Biden’s electoral defeat of US President Donald J. Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu risks being caught between a rock and a hard place as Jordan, the Palestine authority and the United Arab Emirates maneuver for control of what is to Jews, the Temple Mount and to Muslims, the Haram ash-Sharif, the third most holy site in Islam.

The rivalry for control of Jerusalem’s most sensitive, emotive, contested, and a potentially explosive place is occurring against the backdrop of a parallel and interlinked run-up to a competition for the succession of Mahmoud Abbas, the frail 84-year old Palestinian president.

Control of the Jerusalem site

The Jordanian and Palestinian-controlled Supreme Muslim Council have administered the Jerusalem site, since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle Eastern war. Rivalry for the religious control of the site that hosts the Al Aqsa Mosque and is where King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in 957 BC involves multiple risks for Mr. Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s desperate tactics to administer the Haram ash-Sharif

Mr. Netanyahu’s inclination to back attempts by the UAE with Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, in the background, to muscle their way into the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif could complicate relations with Jordan and widen differences with the Palestine authority. The UAE enhanced its ability to maneuver by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and rushing to forge closer ties to the country’s political, security and economic elites.

Read more: What makes Jerusalem so holy & Trump’s deal ludicrous

Supporting Israel favors UAE’s own interests

In a twist of irony, the UAE finds common ground with the Israeli settler movement and the Jewish far-right in wanting to weaken Jordanian-Palestinian control of the Haram ash-Sharif and counter Turkish efforts to stoke Palestinian nationalist and religious sentiment. The settlers and the far-right are calling for internationalization of the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif, which plays into the UAE’s hands.

Israeli-Emirati deal raises the concern and fear within the Jordanian Awqaf and among Palestinians, because it aims to give the UAE a new role inside al-Aqsa

“Ironically, it may be the case that calls for just such an arrangement may come from Muslim citizens of countries that have normalized their ties with Israel and find it offensive that a small group of Palestinians are attempting to ban them from visiting one of their holiest sites,” said Josiah Rotenberg, a member of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based right-wing think tank.

Read more: Normalization with Israel ‘would get me killed by my own people’: Saudi Prince MBS

The UAE’s recognition of Israel and willingness to engage not only with businesses located in Israel’s pre-1967 borders but also those headquartered in Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and invest in a technology park in East Jerusalem has fueled a war of words with the Palestinians and sparked incidents with Emirati visitors to the Haram ash-Sharif.

Israel-Arab ties to reinforce Israeli occupation

“Most of the citizens of Israel, myself included, continue to… demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu apply full sovereignty to Judea and Samaria,” said settlement leader Yossi Dagan after heading a settlers’ delegation on a visit to Dubai to discuss business opportunities. Mr. Dagan was using the biblical name of the West Bank.

An Emirati business delegation visiting Israel last month was verbally assaulted and told to go home by Palestinian worshippers when they went to pray at the mosque

The visit reinforced Palestinian assertions that the creation of diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states prior to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would reinforce Israeli occupation rather than open the door to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Read more: How India is planning to erase Kashmir as Israel erases Palestine

The “Israeli-Emirati deal raises the concern and fear within the Jordanian Awqaf and among Palestinians, because it aims to give the UAE a new role inside al-Aqsa,” said former Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs Khaled Abu Arafa, referring to the Supreme Muslim Council.

War of words and acts of frustration

Resigning in protest from an Emirati clerical group established to project the UAE as a beacon of moderate Islam immediately after the announcement of UAE-Israel relations, Mr. Hussein banned Muslims from the Emirates from visiting and praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, did not need Mr. Dagan’s statement to come to that conclusion.

An Emirati business delegation visiting Israel last month was verbally assaulted and told to go home by Palestinian worshippers when they went to pray at the mosque.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shatiyyeh scolded the Emiratis saying, “one ought to enter the gates of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque by way of its owners, rather than through the gates of the occupation.”

Read more: Israel bans Palestinian official from Al-Aqsa mosque in yet another bid to control the site

Responding on Twitter, Laith al-Awadhi, an Emirati national, retorted: “We will visit Al-Aqsa because it does not belong to you, it belongs to all Muslims.”

Saudi lawyer and writer Abdel Rahman al-Lahim chipped in arguing that “it is very important for the Emiratis and Bahrainis to discuss with Israel ways of liberating Al-Aqsa Mosque from Palestinian thugs in order to protect visitors from Palestinian thuggery.”

What will the Biden administration have in store for Israel-Palestine?

Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian president, has slowed down reconciliation between his Fatah movement and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, in anticipation of a more empathetic policy by an incoming Biden administration.

Mr. Abbas broke off relations with the United States after Mr. Trump produced an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that endorsed annexation, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and cut off funding for the Palestinians.

Palestinian officials suspect the UAE, backed by Israel, of positioning Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with close ties to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as well as US officials, as a potential successor to Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Abbas could be disappointed by the degree to which a Biden administration may reverse Mr. Trump’s policy and find that it may not oppose broadening the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif.

Read more: US defence secretary in Israel talks on military advantage

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Anthony (Tony) Blinken, Mr. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor and a former senior official under President Barak Obama, signaled that Mr. Biden would, in contrast to Mr. Trump, oppose Israeli efforts to annex parts of the West Bank and could adopt a more critical attitude towards expansion of existing Israeli settlements.

It would likely be a position endorsed by the UAE despite the Emirates’ engagement with the settlers.

A two-state solution

Mr. Blinken insisted that a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the “only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and also to fulfill the Palestinian right to a state of their own.”

With both Israel and the Palestinians “far from a place where they’re ready to engage on negotiations or final status talks” Mr. Blinken said that a Biden administration would seek to ensure that “neither side takes additional unilateral steps that make the prospect of two states even more distant or closing it entirely.”

The Biden administration could see broadening of the governance of Haram ash-Sharif as one way of achieving that goal.

Read more: Israel-UAE deal gives Israel keys to the city of Jerusalem

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do no necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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