Analysis

After Temple Mount surrender, PM seeks to divert attention by sliding right

Hours after he caved to Palestinian demands, Netanyahu says he backs death penalty for terrorists, and it’s leaked that he’s been talking of partial West Bank annexation

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to IDF headquarters in the West Bank, March 10, 2015. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to IDF headquarters in the West Bank, March 10, 2015. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

On July 15, a day after the attack just outside the Temple Mount compound in which three Israeli Arabs shot dead two Israeli police officers with guns they had smuggled into the holy site, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed reporters gathered at Ben Gurion Airport, moments before boarding a plane to Paris.

“This evening I held a discussion with the top security leadership and I instructed that metal detectors be placed at the entrance gates to the Temple Mount,” he declared. “We will also install security cameras on poles outside the Temple Mount which give almost complete control over what goes on there.”

Two weeks later, the metal detectors have come and gone, so too cameras and other more marginal measures meant to help secure the site, and the Muslim officials who administer the Mount have handed Netanyahu a bitter lesson on the limits of Israeli sovereignty there. Passions have been inflamed, lives lost, ties between Israel and the Palestinians, Jordanians, Turks and others strained.

The prospect of further violence most emphatically remains, and it is by no means clear whether the “battle for Jerusalem,” as Palestinian leaders have called the dizzying unfolding of events, is over. One thing, however, can be stated with complete certitude: Netanyahu caved. He capitulated. There is no other way to describe his actions this week in restoring the pre-July 14 status quo but as a total climbdown.

The full picture of what went on behind-the-scenes is not yet entirely clear. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia claim to have played an integral part in forcing Israel to back down; the US administration was also deeply involved in efforts to defuse the crisis.

But from the outside, Israel’s removal of all the additional security measures the prime minister had so confidently ordered, without anything tangible in return, looks like an unconditional surrender to the demands of the Palestinian street. And it is emphatically being hailed as a victory by Muslim worshipers — and as “the beginning of Israel’s defeat,” by Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Muslims pray at the Temple Mount on July 27, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Muslims pray at the Temple Mount on July 27, 2017.
(AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Unsurprisingly for a prime minister acutely aware of the volatility of Israeli public opinion, and of the imperative to keep the people on his side, Netanyahu now appears to be centrally focused on damage control — that is, correcting the damage done to his approval ratings. A Channel 2 survey on Tuesday found 77% considered that removing the metal detectors was a capitulation, and 67% thought Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis was not good.

His potent right-wing rival Naftali Bennett argued on Thursday that Israel “emerged weakened” from the crisis, but refrained from attacking the prime minister directly. That is likely because, as a member of the security cabinet, Bennett knows he bears partial responsibility for the various decisions the Israeli government took and then walked back.

Right wing activists Michael Ben Ari (center) and Itamar Ben Gvir (left) carry a fake coffin draped with the Israeli flag during a protest against the removal of metal detectors and other security measures from the Temple Mount, near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Right wing activists Michael Ben Ari (center) and Itamar Ben Gvir (left) carry a fake coffin draped with the Israeli flag during a protest against the removal of metal detectors and other security measures from the Temple Mount, near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But to Bennett’s ideological right, ultranationalists Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir had no such hesitation. Blaming Netanyahu, Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, they led a mock funeral procession, coffin et al, near Netanyahu’s residence on Thursday afternoon, to symbolize the death of the last vestiges of Israel’s “national honor.”

Hours later, Netanyahu raised eyebrows when he suddenly came out in support of the death penalty for terrorists.

Not long after thousands of ecstatic Muslims had streamed into the largely unsecured Temple Mount, Netanyahu paid a shiva call to the Salomon family, three members of which were killed Friday night by a Palestinian terrorist in the West Bank settlement of Halamish.

“The death penalty for terrorists — it’s time to implement it in severe cases,” Netanyahu told the mourners. “It’s anchored in the law. You need the judges to rule unanimously on it, but if you want to know the government’s position and my position as prime minister — in a case like this, of a base murderer like this — he should be executed.”

The death penalty for terrorists had been a key demand of Liberman’s ahead of the March 2015 Knesset election. But he dropped it in May 2016 when his hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party joined the coalition and he became defense minister.

At the time, Netanyahu didn’t need the headache of a public discussion over the merits of capital punishment. On Thursday, backing the execution of a Palestinian terrorist became a quick and convenient way to begin to regain favor with his right-wing base.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Thursday evening, Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu had discussed with US President Trump’s Middle East team another policy long promoted by Liberman: annexing West Bank settlement blocs to Israel in exchange for incorporating large Arab population centers currently in Israel to a future Palestinian state.

When then-foreign minister Liberman proposed this plan at the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, Netanyahu publicly disowned him.

A senior White House official told The Times of Israel on Thursday evening that this idea “may have been one of many ideas discussed several weeks ago in the context of a peace agreement and not in the context of a separate annexation.”

The prospect of a comprehensive peace deal is currently some distance beyond remote, and hence such a proposal is utterly irrelevant at this point in time. Given that Netanyahu urgently needs to divert the public’s attention from his Temple Mount surrender, one might be forgiven for thinking it was leaked right now for that very reason.

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