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Unrest at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound puts pressure on Bennett and Abbas


How has unrest in Jerusalem affected Israeli and Palestinian leaders? The unrest came at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, an area controlled by Israel and holy to both Muslims and Jews. The Israeli prime minister is Naftali Bennett. The Palestinian president is Mahmoud Abbas. Both face pressure to stand up for their side. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The images from the most sensitive site in Jerusalem set the region on edge. Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, responding to Palestinians who were gathering or throwing stones. Medics said more than 150 Palestinians were injured. Israel said it arrested hundreds. Then came the ripple effects - rockets fired at Israel from militants in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, Israeli airstrikes struck targets in central Gaza. The unrest doesn't seem to be spiraling out of control yet, but it is causing political dilemmas for leaders on both sides, especially in Israel. One response came in the Israeli Parliament when a political party led by Palestinian citizens of Israel suspended its alliance with the coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. I met Israeli political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin in Tel Aviv. She said doubts about the government's future are growing.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Everybody thought it was one tiny step closer to a very big possibility of coalition collapse.

KENYON: If the Al-Aqsa crisis did damage Bennett, one big beneficiary could be opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longtime former leader now on trial for corruption. Scheindlin says if elections are called, Netanyahu's party would likely do well. But he could still face problems putting together a coalition.

SCHEINDLIN: He will have to find all sorts of partners to go in with him. And there is always the same problem - as long as Netanyahu is standing trial, there are parties who will not sit with him or under him as the head of the government.

KENYON: Other analysts agree that low public regard for leaders in Jerusalem has been placed front and center by the events at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, says Israel's leaders urgently need calm to give themselves time to recover.

YOHANAN PLESNER: So as long as religious emotions continue to be evoked from the Temple Mount, it will be very difficult to stabilize the coalition. But if things calm down, I think it will become sort of a short episode in the coalition's ride.

KENYON: But Plesner also says he hopes the Arab party that suspended its role in the coalition, the Ra'am Party, is able to return to government because he wouldn't like to see an end to what he calls this important experiment.

PLESNER: Bringing the Arab parties into the Israeli coalition-making game is a game-changer in Israeli politics. It pretty much brings back the center-left parties into the political game.

KENYON: As for the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, observers say both have had to face public outrage and the perception that the extremists of Hamas are leading the fight against Israel. Former PA official Riad Jeraie (ph) says anger at Abbas is running strong. He was told a close aide to Abbas was recently prevented from praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque by worshippers angry at the apparent impotence of their president.

RIAD JERAIE: People understood that he can't do anything to deter Israel from committing violence in Al-Aqsa Mosque or in the church in Jerusalem.

KENYON: But Jeraie says people also believe that Abbas has no real political channel to Israeli leaders these days. So while they're disappointed in their president, they also have low expectations for what's possible. One question is whether some could seek out more extreme solutions. Some of the protesters at Al-Aqsa were carrying Hamas flags.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.