Facing fierce criticism from ministers from his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed Thursday morning to add Arab Knesset members to a new ban against Jewish lawmakers ascending the flashpoint Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The ban on visits by Jewish lawmakers, first reported overnight Wednesday, sparked a spate of backlash from right and left. The decision to issue the ban was made in late September, following a series of clashes between Muslim activists and Israeli police on and around the Mount, but police began implementing it this week.
It was a bid to help calm the ongoing tensions, which have been punctuated by multiple deadly terror attacks by Palestinians in recent days and clashes in the West Bank.
In all, four Israelis have been killed in stabbings by Palestinian attackers and a roadside shooting in recent days, while five Palestinians, including three of the attackers, have been killed. On Wednesday, new stabbings occurred outside a crowded mall in central Israel, in a southern Israeli town and in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Many Palestinians believe Israel is trying to expand Jewish presence at the site, a claim Israel adamantly denies and considers slanderous. Under a longstanding arrangement administered by Islamic authorities, Jews are allowed to visit the site during certain hours but not pray there.
But banning Jewish lawmakers from the holy site, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said Thursday morning before Netanyahu extended the ban to Arab lawmakers, “is comparable to blaming the rape victim for the rape because she was walking around in short sleeves.”
Ariel promised to “speak to the prime minister. I think we will reach an understanding. If not, we’ll consider our response,” he added in an interview with Army Radio, intimating political troubles for the prime minister.
“We won’t break the coalition,” said Ariel, a senior member of the Jewish Home party. “The decision to break the coalition is in the prime minister’s hands… I’m not threatening. I hope the prime minister doesn’t want that, though there is chatter that he is engaged in conversations with [opposition head] Mr. [Isaac] Herzog with the idea of bringing him in and pushing us out. This didn’t start today.”
Netanyahu faced criticism from supporters within his own party as well, who took note of the fact that the prime minister’s decision banned only Jewish lawmakers.
“The status quo never included forbidding MKs or any Israeli citizens to go up” to the Temple Mount, noted Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who also holds the Jerusalem portfolio in Netanyahu’s cabinet.
“I can accept that, out of a desire to enable ordinary citizens to keep ascending [the Mount] in accordance with the status quo — that MKs and ministers not be allowed to do so in order to avoid raising tensions,” he told Army Radio.
“But if we’re seeking to prevent inciters [from entering the site], that’s first of all people like [Arab MKs] Hanin Zoabi, [Jamal] Zahalka, Ahmad Tibi. They’re the first people who should be forbidden from going up.”
“The police decision at the moment is to not allow Uri Ariel to go up to the Temple Mount,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a political ally — and potential future challenger to — Netanyahu, told the radio station. “In my opinion, that should be true of Arab MKs as well. Any provocateur who wants to disrupt the situation on the Temple Mount, irrespective of their religion, should be kept away.”
Netanyahu’s response to the criticism came quickly Thursday morning.
“The order to the police to not allow ministers and MKs to go up to the Temple Mount for the time being applies to both Jews and Arabs,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a “clarification” Thursday.
Within minutes, Arab lawmakers vowed to challenge Netanyahu’s decision and visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount for Friday prayers.
“This is an insane and illegal decision,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi fumed.
“No Netanyahu and no right wing can prevent us from entering our al-Aqsa Mosque. Those who initially decided to prevent right-wing provocateurs like Uri Ariel [from visiting the holy site]… are now making a u-turn and flipflopping and deciding at the drop of a hat to escalate the situation.
“Tomorrow all of us will be there in the al-Aqsa Mosque, because it’s our mosque. To equate Arab and Muslim MKs with Ariel… is like saying the homeowner and the burglar are equal.”
AP contributed to this report.