• OPINION \ Jan 22, 2002
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    Lawless in Nazareth
Lawless in Nazareth One of Abba Eban's better known aphorisms states that governments will take the right decision only after having exhausted all other alternatives. This is certainly appropriate regarding the handling by successive Israeli governments of the attempts by the Islamic Movement to build a mosque facing the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Netanyahu's government appointed a committee headed by Moshe Katsav, at the time minister of tourism, to examine the issue. After long deliberations it decided that the Islamic Movement, a fundamentalist organization known for preaching hostility to Israel, should be permitted to build the mosque on state-owned land facing the Basilica.

Barak's government again appointed a committee to deal with the matter. This time headed by Shlomo Ben-Ami, the public security minister, the committee reached similar conclusions.

Now it is the turn of the Sharon government. A committee headed by Housing Minister Natan Sharansky is reexamining this thorny issue. It is to be hoped that this time they will finally come up with the correct decision, even though the Islamic Movement is organizing demonstrations and threatening the government.

It all started when the Nazareth municipality, in preparation for the Pope's visit in 2000, planned to turn the empty square opposite the Basilica of the Annunciation into a piazza in which Christian pilgrims could assemble. The Islamic Movement, not wanting to miss an opportunity to stir up trouble, suddenly claimed the tomb of Shihab a-Din, a long-neglected minor shrine located at a corner of the square, as a most important Muslim holy site deserving of the construction of a large mosque that would tower over the Basilica of the Annunciation. In order to stake their claim they began squatting opposite the church, conducting daily prayers under a large tent.

The Supreme Court's decision that the land in question did not belong to the Muslim Waqf but was state property did not deter them. They announced plans for building the mosque while threatening anyone that might stand in their way.

How was it that two successive Israeli governments took the wrong decision on a most important issue, succeeding in arousing a wave of protest among Christians around the world? It mistakenly viewed itself as the mediator in a dispute between Christians and Muslims charged with the task of proposing a compromise between conflicting claims.

Moreover, political considerations may have played the dominant role. Since there are more Muslim than Christian voters in Israel, why not accede to Muslim demands? If the politicians on the two committees anticipated that by appeasing the Islamic Movement they would gain the votes of Israel's Muslim citizens for their respective parties, they must have been sorely disappointed at election time. That they counted on such a reward for their mistaken recommendations is an indication of an absence of understanding of the Arab political scene.

In effect, the government is charged with maintaining the law and taking action against those that violated the law. In this case, the Islamic Movement was continually in clear violation of the law. Their people squatted on land that did not belong to them. They initiated construction without a building permit. They threatened with violence all that ventured to oppose their plans for building the mosque.

That is the legal aspect. But more than legality is involved here. There is also the moral aspect. The Basilica of the Annunciation is one of the major holy sites of Christendom. The building of a large mosque opposite the church is an obvious and deliberate affront to the Christian community in Nazareth and to Christians around the world.

The Israeli government carries the heavy responsibility of protecting the holy sites of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religion in the land. Permitting the Islamic Movement to build the mosque is a violation of that trust.

Now that there are indications from the Sharon government that it is determined to enforce the law, the Islamic Movement is showing its true colors. With mass demonstrations in front of the Basilica and threats of violence, they are hoping to deter the government. Leaders of the so-called "moderate" southern wing are marching arm-in-arm with leaders of the "radical" northern wing waving black Islamic flags and anti-government slogans. The movement that is a hotbed of incitement against Israel and a breeding ground of terrorism among Israel's Arab population believes it has found a "holy" cause around which to rally its followers.

Hopefully this will not frighten the government. This time it should take the right decision.