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Columnist: 'Shameful' That Leaders Made Arab-Israeli Conflict Religious

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ask people in Jerusalem what is different about the anxiety this week after a murderous assault on the synagogue, and they mention the question of the Temple Mount - to Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary. Muslims worship there. Jews, under Israeli policy, may visit, but not pray. Some Israelis have agitated to change that policy. Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the big daily paper Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote recently - and I'm quoting - "of the difficulty decision-makers encounter when it comes to understanding God's place in the lives of their subjects." I asked Barnea how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's also called Abu Mazen, are handling that difficulty now.

NAHUM BARNEA: In a very bad way. Look, one of the basic rules in the Arab-Israeli conflict was that as long as it is a nationalistic - even ethnic - conflict, we can somehow control it. But when God enters the scene, we're in a different position. And the fact that so many - I would say - politicians and religious leaders on both sides, by fighting each other in the propaganda war, pushed to turn the conflict into a religious conflict - it was irresponsible and, I believe, shameful.

SIEGEL: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said even though there might be up a bill introduced in the Israeli parliament to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, it's not going to happen. It will not become law. But, as you say, go anywhere in the Middle East, talk to people from neighboring countries, and they are absolutely convinced that Israel is about to stake out a religious position on the - what Muslims consider the Noble Sanctuary.

BARNEA: Yeah, this is our tragedy. First of all, in the current situation, Arabs all over the Middle East and especially Palestinians believe in any bad news that they hear. So many lies pushed people to this terrible bloodshed, and people still don't believe in anything. And the other thing is that they say, look, members of Netanyahu's party are calling for a change in the status quo. Members of the government, the deputy minister of religion, called for change in the status quo. So why we should believe Netanyahu and not his colleagues? This is a problem.

SIEGEL: Can you explain another confusion? Netanyahu has - well, he's heard the Palestinian president, Abu Mazen - Mahmoud Abbas - denounce the assault on the synagogue in Jerusalem. He's heard Mahmoud Abbas say that Palestinians will continue to fight terrorism. But he blames him for incitement, which I gather the head of the Israeli security service says isn't true - that he's not inciting people.

BARNEA: Yes and no. Look, the government of Israel now is fighting two separate wars, I would say. One is the war against terror. And here, Mr. Abbas is close to perfect in his orders he gives his people and the fact that he insists that all the internal security institutions of the Palestinian Authority will work with our internal security in order to avoid terror. Now, there is another combat - the diplomatic combat. And here, Mr. Abbas is fighting openly in the international organizations against Israel, trying to bypass the negotiations, which, as you know, failed. So I believe that we are facing two separate combats and Netanyahu should take it into consideration.

SIEGEL: What is your sense of the mood among Israelis these days? Is it fatalistic? Is it something - things are about to get drastically worse very soon?

BARNEA: Look, in Jerusalem because we had several terrorist - spontaneous attacks, I mean, you know, not by organizations, but by people who woke up in the morning and decided that they want to be shahids. They want to be martyrs of the terrorist movement. This is a phenomenon which makes people in Jerusalem quite nervous. I'm not sure the whole country is in the same mood. At the same time, I can see the danger that the fear among Israelis regarding this resumption of terror will bear fruit to negative outcome. For example, there is pressure now not to hire Arabs because people are afraid that they will - at a certain point, they will become terrorists. There is, in the social networks, a wave of expressions regarding Jews which sound quite racist. I'm not saying that - it represents only a small minority. But still, we see it, and we have no way to control it. Now, you have the same kind of hatred expressed in the Arab social networks. We are in trouble in this sense. At the same time, the country is working. We're not talking about something similar to our neighbors - the Syrians, for example, or Iraq or even Egypt in the last two years. The country is working and quite lovely. You should come and visit.

SIEGEL: Nahum Barnea, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BARNEA: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Nahum Barnea is an Israeli columnist. He writes for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, and he spoke to us from Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.