(January 4, 2023 / JNS)
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For those convinced that naming Itamar Ben-Gvir Israel’s minister of national security was tantamount to putting a ticking time bomb in the cabinet, his latest move was proof that they’d been right. His visit on Tuesday to the Temple Mount took place despite the reported concerns of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warnings from the country’s security establishment, the international media and Washington that his excursion to the sacred plateau would lead to violence.
Yet, while the stunt can certainly be considered reckless, the assumption that nothing good can come from it may be wrong. Ben-Gvir’s purpose, at least in part, was to posture to his supporters—and show that he won’t allow himself to be converted into the political version of his new boss Netanyahu’s house-trained puppy. But there are also some potential benefits from his bold assertion of Jewish rights to the holy site.
A lot depends on the aftermath of the incident—on whether it sets the country on fire, as his critics are predicting, or causes a genuine rupture with Israel’s Arab allies. If the admonitions are shown to have been more bluster than leading to actual bloodshed, however, Ben-Gvir may have proved an important point.
If he is seen as successfully defying not just Netanyahu—and the chorus of those at home and abroad labeling him a rabid extremist—but calling the bluff of the terrorists, his move will have done more than merely boost his own ambition to become the leader of the right. It could be the moment when Israel fully demonstrates that it will never again allow terrorists to exercise a veto over the status of Jerusalem and its most sacred spaces.
Those who claimed that former President Donald Trump’s transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would turn the region into an inferno of Islamist violence were wrong. The same might be true for Ben-Gvir’s detractors.
Israel may still be insisting that it will not alter the discriminatory status quo on Judaism’s holiest site, which is treated like a Muslim enclave where Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, in an effort to mollify Jordan and other friendly Arab governments. But showing that Israeli leaders won’t be prevented from exercising that right by those who treat the tread of “stinking Jewish feet” there as blasphemy, as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas once ranted, can also be understood as a necessary sign of strength and assertion of Jewish rights that will ultimately have to be appreciated even by those who are fulminating about Ben-Gvir’s actions.
Though his walk took place without incident, there are still worries that it will be used by Hamas, and perhaps by factions of the supposedly moderate ruling Fatah faction of the P.A., as an excuse for renewed rocket attacks or other terrorist assaults on Jews in the coming days.
It will also be the focus of a new round of Israel-bashing at the United Nations, at a special session of the Security Council requested by Jordan, the P.A. and even Israel’s close Arab ally, the United Arab Emirates. In addition to provoking the usual hysterical rhetoric from the Jewish state’s enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah, Ben-Gvir’s action was condemned by its ally the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with which it has cordial, under-the-table relations.
The fact that Netanyahu was forced to postpone a trip to the UAE after it expressed outrage over the Temple Mount issue didn’t endear Ben-Gvir to the prime minister. And leaving aside the partisan, even anti-Zionist hyperbole about his sparking a new intifada and “leading Israel to Hell,” as one Haaretz columnist put it, the incident illustrated the downside to this sort of freelancing.
Netanyahu’s main foreign-policy goal is to try to expand the Abraham Accords and get more Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel. The obstacles to that effort are considerable.
Rather than working hard for this objective, as the Trump administration did, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team has proven to be of little help. It’s still more interested in its failed effort to appease Iran by forging a new and even more dangerous nuclear deal, and in preserving the possibility of a two-state solution in which the Palestinians have no interest, than in doing something that might actually expand the circle of peace.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia view the P.A. with the contempt it deserves, and no longer wish to be held hostage to its intransigence. But they also still need to pay lip service to the sympathy for the Palestinians that is pervasive in the Arab and Muslim world.
The question of protecting the mosques on the Temple Mount from a mythical Jewish threat is a very sensitive topic for them. Allaying such concerns was a principal element of the American and Israeli diplomacy that led to the Abraham Accords.
Seen from that perspective, Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount walkabout was an act of shocking irresponsibility that, at best, created an unnecessary distraction, and, at worst, sabotaged Netanyahu’s initiative, which is vital to further securing Israel’s future as a regional player with genuine Arab allies. It also torpedoed Ben-Gvir’s quest to be seen as more than just the leader of an extreme faction, and to leave behind his past as a supporter of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
There is, however, another precedent here. In the fall of 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon took his own Temple Mount walk, which many still believe sparked the Second Intifada. The truth is, however, that PLO chief Yasser Arafat, by that time the head of the P.A., had planned that terrorist war of attrition long before Sharon’s excursion, as a response to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s failed effort to buy peace with the surrender of most of Judea and Samaria and a share of Jerusalem that the veteran Palestinian killer had turned down.
Sharon would defeat Barak and be elected prime minister only months later. Though his victory was the result of his rival’s folly, Sharon’s assertion of Jewish rights resonated with many Israelis, both religious and secular, who rightly resent the way Jews are discriminated against in their holiest place.
The problem with tiptoeing around Muslim sensibilities about the Temple Mount is that though it makes sense to avoid unnecessary trouble, keeping Jews out and refusing them equal rights to prayer there reinforces the Palestinian narrative denying the validity of Jewish history and Jewish rights to any part of Jerusalem and the country as a whole.
Trusting a man with a record as a professional provocateur like Ben-Gvir with the job of navigating through the diplomatic minefield that the Mount represents was a political necessity for Netanyahu. He probably already regrets it, since the minister is unwilling to do as he’s told.
Yet Ben-Gvir isn’t wrong to want to send a message to the Palestinians that their denial of Jewish history won’t be tolerated. Even if this wasn’t the moment that Netanyahu would have chosen for it, calling the terrorists’ bluff is also a security imperative.
There must be zero tolerance for terrorism of any kind, no matter whether it takes the form of Hamas missiles or P.A.-fomented “lone wolf” attacks on Jews, regardless of the excuse cited by Israel’s detractors.
In the long run, establishing that no one can invalidate Jewish rights on the Temple Mount sends the message to the Arab and Islamic world that Israel is here to stay and that Palestinian fantasies of its destruction must be rejected. Seen from that perspective, Ben-Gvir may still be deemed reckless, but his stunt might do far more good than harm.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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