Housing Minister Uri Ariel became the first serving Cabinet minister in recent memory to visit the Temple Mount, when he participated in a tour of the sacred site as a tourist last week.

MK Uri Ariel from the Israeli National Union party (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

MK Uri Ariel from the Israeli National Union party (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Ariel, who belongs to the national-religious Jewish Home party, reportedly joined a group touring the site without identifying himself as a Cabinet minister and without calling attention to himself.

During the tour, the Hebrew paper Makor Rishon reported on Friday, Ariel hummed a liturgical melody and listened to a reading of a Passover sacrifice service, narrowly skirting a law that forbids Jews from worshipping on the Mount, also the site of Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the al-Aqsa mosque.

Police reportedly rushed the tour group along, interrupting its proceedings on several occasions.

Israeli police and the site’s Waqf (Muslim Trust) guards keep close tabs on visitors identifiable as religious Jews. If someone is seen moving lips in prayer, or prostrates themselves on the smooth stones of the shrine, they are expelled and can be detained.

According to Makor Rishon, Ariel disclosed to the group that the demand to allow Jews equal worship rights on the sacred site, once home to the Jewish Temple, was not included in his party’s coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to the Likud’s refusal to discuss it. He predicted that progress on the issue would be made, but that it would be difficult because the current political leaders are interested in maintaining the status quo.

While right-wing politicians occasionally visit the controversial site — Likud hawk Moshe Feiglin was recently barred from touring the Mount — Ariel is the first Cabinet minister to do so in recent memory. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon sparked riots when he did so as opposition leader in September 2000.

The status quo on the Mount is the result of a convergence of religious and political interests after 1967. Rabbis decided early on that religious law forbade visiting the site because of fears that one might tread on the location of the Holy of Holies, the focal point of ancient ritual, where people were forbidden to enter. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the most important Zionist rabbi of the latter half of the 20th century, ruled that it was prohibited to visit the Mount, a position still endorsed by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. With the threat of violence should Muslim control at the site be harmed, Israeli authorities were also eager to keep the peace and happy to channel Jewish worshipers to the Western Wall.

But the desire to pray on the Mount has found more acceptance among mainstream rabbis in Israel over the past decade, spreading gradually from a tiny fringe to a broader religious public. The numbers of Jews actually visiting the Mount for religious reasons is still tiny — no more than several thousand a year, according to police estimates — but inching upward, and the sacred enclosure is slowly gaining in importance as an issue of religious and political meaning for religious Zionists, a group with outsize ideological and political clout in Israeli society.

Ariel, one of the most hawkish members of Knesset, was elected to parliament as No. 2 on the Nationalist Jewish Home slate, after its leader Naftali Bennett. On his first day as housing minister, Ariel rejected the notion of a building freeze in West Bank settlements as “dreadful,” and said he intended to authorize construction over the pre-1967 Green Line “at more or less than same pace” as the previous government.

Ariel, himself the founder of several settlements, the first mayor of the settlement of Beit El, and a former 10-year head of the Council of Jewish Settlements, or Yesha, said he saw “no reason” to slow down the building of Jewish homes over the pre-1967 green line. “We will build in Judea and Samaria,” he pledged, using the Hebrew terms for the West Bank.

Matti Friedman contributed to this report