Jerusalem — The Israeli government will have a tough choice to make if a Saudi cleric with a popular TV show makes good on his promise to broadcast from Jerusalem.
On Sunday Sheik Mohammed al-Areefi, a Muslim cleric who hosts a program with many young viewers, announced that he would be in Jerusalem next week, a claim that caught Israeli officials, and at least some Muslim officials, completely off-guard.
“I don’t know anything about this. You should call the Wakf, the Islamic Trust,” said Adnan Hussein, the Palestinian Authority’s Governor of Jerusalem. A Wakf official, who requested anonymity, also hadn’t heard about the visit. But he added, “We would welcome it.”
Mark Regev, a spokesman at the Prime Minister’s Office, said his office had heard of al-Areefi’s intentions “through the media, through the grapevine."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said al-Areefi is "free to apply for a visa at the Israeli consulate in Amman, and it will be dealt with according to normal procedure. To date he hasn’t applied for one.”
Israel has issued entry permits to many Muslim pilgrims from countries without diplomatic ties to Israel, including Libya, Pakistan, Indonesia and even Saudi Arabia, according to Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), who noted that such visits are “low-key and under the radar.”
Al-Areefi’s visit, if it happens, will be anything but low-key. It’s already been reported throughout the Arab and Muslim world from Jordan to Pakistan.
Many of the articles said the sheik, who is considered a religious moderate in a repressive society, was coming “to bolster Muslim claims” to Jerusalem. He reportedly told his viewers that he does “not fear treachery from the Jews” thanks to his faith in Allah.
Since the announcement, the Internet has been full of speculation about the visit, which would be a precedent. Officially, Saudi Arabia does not permit its citizens to come to Israel or do business with Israelis.
Talkbacks in Arab newspapers have generally supported al-Areefi for being bold enough to visit Jerusalem. Some readers said such a pilgrimage would strengthen Muslim ties to the holy city, while others expressed the hope that it would clarify unanswered questions, such as whether Israeli archeological excavations are endangering area mosques.
Israeli talkbacks have been more negative than positive.
“This cleric should not be granted a visa to enter Israeli sovereign soil. The government should politely tell him no he cannot enter Israel,” a Jerusalem-based reader named Yosef wrote on the Israelnationalnews.com Web site.
Another reader said Israel should abduct al-Areefi upon arrival “and return him only after Gilad Shalit is released alive.”
Off-line, many Israelis believe a high-profile visit by a prominent Muslim could actually benefit Israel.
“If he does show up, it would be in Israel’s best interest to make the most of it,” said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Gerald Steinberg. “He should receive a visa and as much media coverage as possible. If it’s a live program, have him accompanied by someone like Rabbi David Rosen [who is deeply involved in high-level interreligious work] for a Jewish perspective and by appropriate Christian counterparts. This would make it difficult for him to avoid noting that Jerusalem is the home of three religions and would prevent this from turning into an anti-Israel propaganda piece.”
Before issuing the sheik a visa, Rabbi Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs, believes the Israeli government needs to consult with Saudi officials.
“It would be completely contrary to Israel’s interests to do anything that would alienate the Saudi leadership,” Rabbi Rosen said in a phone interview from Spain.
Israel would also need to perform a thorough background check, Rabbi Rosen said, something it does on all visitors from hostile countries.
“Obviously Israel cannot give anyone an entry permit unless he commits to abiding by Israeli law, which means avoiding incitement. There would have to be an appropriate understanding,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Rosen said he has never met al-Areefi, but knows him by reputation.
“He’s known as a man who is prepared to think out of the box, who is capable of utilizing his critical facilities. Religiously, he tows the orthodox line, but he has relatively moderate attitudes toward women and, if I recall correctly, he’s condemned terror attacks as going against Islamic law.”
While acknowledging that “there is always the danger you can be exploited and people can abuse your confidence,” Rabbi Rosen said a magnanimous gesture could improve its image.
“There’s the saying, ‘Somebody who’s never been taken for a ride has never been on a journey worth taking.’”
In the Arab coffee houses of east Jerusalem, customers read about al-Areefi’s possible visit in the Arabic daily Al-Kuds, which had a story on its front page.
“Of course Israel will give him an visa, and I’m certain he won’t negate Jewish claims to the Temple Mount,” Abed Abu Ramuz, who manufacturers sweets, said confidently over his Turkish coffee and newspaper. “He’ll come peacefully and go peacefully. No one wants problems.”
A taxi driver who said his name was Munir countered: “He shouldn’t come! If he comes, he’ll be granting legitimacy to Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the mosque. [Egyptian President] Mubarak hasn’t come for this reason, Yasir Arafat didn’t come for this reason, and al-Areefi should stay away as well.”
Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote on visa applications to the Prime Minister's Office. It was, in fact, a quote from the Foreign Ministry spokesman.
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