If there was any doubt that religious symbolism dominates the news from the Middle East, it was dispelled by the two biggest stories emanating from the region last week: a conference in Mecca and a dispute about Jerusalem's Temple Mount. But if there was any unifying theme to these two contrasting stories, it was that deception seemed to be at the heart of both.
The conclave in Mecca -- the holiest city in Islam -- seemed, at face value, to be a positive development. There, under the sponsorship of the Saudis, the leaders of the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas groups agreed to stop the fighting between their members in the territories, and to form a coalition Palestinian Authority government.
Still, that did not represent a harbinger of peace or even of responsible government. The purpose was to sanitize a Palestinian government run by terrorists committed to Israel's destruction. The primary goal of the new Palestinian coalition is to convince the European Union, and perhaps even the United States, that it's now okay to restart the flow of foreign aid to the P.A., which has been on hold ever since the Hamas election victory in January 2006.
Foreign donors were not prepared to sign checks to an Islamist group like Hamas that, unlike the more diplomatic Fatah, makes no bones about what it intends to do with its power. The aid cutoff has had a major impact on the already tottering Palestinian economy and services for the needy. But it has had no effect on the willingness of the P.A. or Fatah from using what cash they have had on hand to pay for more weapons and violent surges against Israel.
What the Mecca agreement has done is to repackage a government of terrorists, and give it the facade of respectability and moderation that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas still retains, despite the large volume of evidence that his own intentions are far from peaceful. That Abbas was a clear loser in the agreement is obvious. Those waiting for him to use the considerable force at his disposal to defeat Hamas were obviously misled.
Mecca also enhances the prestige of the Saudis at a time when this nation and other so-called Arab "moderates" feel the need to respond to the growing influence of Iran. This is one reason why many are urging Washington to reward the Mecca signers with a halt to the boycott of the P.A. In the context of the war in Iraq, this gives the United States a rationale to go along with the deception.
Were Hamas to renounce its platform, recognize Israel and pledge to give up violence, then the advocates for accepting the new coalition would have a leg to stand on. But given that Hamas has made it crystal-clear that it will do no such thing, resuming aid to the P.A. would be a colossal betrayal.
And that brings us back to the controversy over construction to repair an old entrance to the Temple Mount.
Israel has no designs on the mosques on the mount. But what the vicious rhetoric and threats of violence coming from the Islamic world about this is the Arab denial of Jewish rights to the Western Wall or any part of Jerusalem at all. Those who buy into the idea that this is a provocation are tacitly accepting the notion that Israel is an "illegal occupier" in its own capital in the very places most sacred to Jews.
The whole point of stirring up trouble about these holy places is to create an atmosphere of intimidation against Israel. It's also an example of hypocrisy since it is the Muslim religious authority on the mount that has been conducting illegal excavations on the site that have undoubtedly harmed its historical legacy.
Sadly, what the lies behind both the Mecca agreement and the Jerusalem riots illustrate is just how far away any real chances for reconciliation really are.