Until recently, he openly called to change the status quo

After visit, Ben Gvir won’t say if he aims to enable Jewish prayer on Temple Mount

National security minister accuses US, other countries of hypocrisy for criticizing visit; chief rabbi says going to site ‘forbidden’; opposition’s Kahana gives unexpected support

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir refused Tuesday evening to say whether he’ll seek to change the sensitive status quo at the Temple Mount in order the enable Jewish prayer there, after his visit to the flashpoint holy site ignited furor abroad and criticism at home as well, and accused other countries of hypocrisy for condemning the visit.

“You know that I give clear answers. If I don’t want to answer, I don’t answer,” he said when pressed in a Channel 12 interview about whether he would bid to change the status quo so that Jewish visitors to the site, the holiest place in Judaism, are allowed by the government to pray there.

“That’s not the story. The story on Temple Mount is the racism. That Jews can’t go up. That Jews are treated as though they’re impure. That Jews are not allowed to drink from the water tap,” he said, also dodging a question on whether he would allow a Passover sacrifice at the site.

Ben Gvir has long been an advocate for formally altering the Temple Mount status quo, in which Muslims are allowed to pray and enter with few restrictions, while Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police. Ben Gvir’s ministry oversees the police force.

In his TV interview, Channel 12 broadcast footage of him from late last year, declaring, “It’s racism — you can’t say that Arabs can pray there and Jews can’t.” Asked if he’d now work from his ministerial position to change the status quo, he said, “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

He added: I’ll fight against racism [on the Temple Mount]… Incidentally, Jewish prayer, I’ll tell you, does take place on Temple Mount. [Former prime minister] Bennett permitted it. [Former prime minister] Lapid permitted it. [Former police minister ]Omer Barlev permitted it.”

Jews are not allowed to pray at the site or to bring in any religious items or Israeli flags, though recent years have increasingly seen police allow some silent prayer.

Ben Gvir accused foreign countries of engaging in hypocrisy by condemning his visit to the holy site and not the Hamas terror group or the Palestinian Authority for paying terrorists.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

The US was among the countries that decried his visit, along with Arab and Muslim countries with which Israel has ties, including Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Turkey.

“There is always significance to what the US says,” Ben Gvir said. “I love the US, they’re our friends, but I expect them to understand that they actually need to come out against those who throw firebombs at our soldiers, who try to murder our babies.”

The US regularly condemns Palestinian violence against Israelis.

Ben Gvir said his Temple Mount visit had been planned in advance, even though it came as a surprise, and appeared to confirm that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant approved the visit, nodding when asked if they had.

“The government of Israel won’t fold,” he said, citing threats by Hamas against his visit.

Ben Gvir’s wife, Ayala Ben Gvir, also defended the move after visiting the site shortly after her husband.

“The Temple Mount is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and when I go there I feel the holiness, I feel a warm embrace,” she told the 94FM radio station.

“Terrorists try to harm Jews all the time, with a reason or without a reason,” she said of concerns of Palestinian violence following the visits. “It’s the same logic as why you don’t tell women: ‘Don’t go out into the street because you might get raped,’ it sounds ridiculous and terrible to us. We can’t tell a Jewish person: ‘You’re not allowed to go out in some place in Israel because maybe someone will get mad.’”

Ayala Ben Gvir sparked criticism in November by bringing a pistol to a get-together at a swanky Jerusalem hotel with the spouses of other presumptive coalition heads, hosted by Sara Netanyahu, the current prime minister’s wife.

File: Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In addition to the censure from abroad, the minister’s visit prompted condemnation in Israel, including from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

“As a minister representing the government of Israel, you should be acting according to Chief Rabbinate instructions, which have long forbidden visiting the Temple Mount,” Yosef wrote in a letter to Ben Gvir.

Yosef called on Ben Gvir to stop doing so “in order not to mislead the public.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s official position is that the site is too holy for Jews to set foot on, though many rabbis in the national-religious community support visits to certain parts of the site.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who on Monday had warned the visit would lead to bloodshed, said that Ben Gvir had highlighted weakness on the part of Netanyahu.

“The State of Israel does not accept dictates from anyone regarding its security, but to quarrel with half the world just so that Ben Gvir can spend 13 minutes on the Temple Mount is political irresponsibility and incredible weakness from Netanyahu in the face of his ministers,” Lapid said.

Deputy Religious Affairs Minister MK Matan Kahana attends a discussion at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir received unexpected support from former religious services minister Matan Kahana, a member of Benny Gantz’s opposition National Unity party. Kahana attempted a number of religious reforms as a minister, which have been harshly opposed by Netanyahu’s bloc and are likely to be canceled by the current government.

“I’m happy that Itamar Ben Gvir consulted with security officials and went up to the Temple Mount. We’re sovereign in all the land of Israel and we need to realize that sovereignty,” Kahana told the 94FM radio station. “We don’t need to take instructions from any of our enemies.”

The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third-holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

Many Palestinians reject the notion that the site is holy to Jews, having accused Israel and Zionists for around a century of plotting to destroy the mosque and replace it with a Jewish temple — a move that is not supported by mainstream Israeli society.

Tourists visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, January 3, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Ben Gvir’s visit came hours after reports said that he had agreed to postpone his planned trip following a meeting with Netanyahu, and despite condemnation from the opposition and threats from the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

The Tuesday visit was held on the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day mourning the events that led to the destruction of the Temple.

According to Channel 12, police raised their alertness level in Jerusalem in the hours after Ben Gvir’s visit. There was no official announcement on the matter.

Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, almost two decades after Amman conquered it during the War of Independence in 1948. However, Israel allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount.

Alleged provocations and violence at the site have frequently turned into wider conflagrations.

Palestinians and most of the international community vehemently reject any changes to the current situation, although most Palestinians also object to any Israeli Jewish presence at the site, including of police officers tasked with preserving security.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has sought to assure Israel’s allies that he will not allow any changes, and he had a clause included in all of his coalition deals stipulating that the status quo “with regard to the holy places” will be preserved.

Ben Gvir is head of one of the three far-right parties in Netanyahu’s nascent coalition.

The newly minted national security minister, who has long been accused of being a provocateur, made several trips to the Temple Mount as an activist and Knesset member and has also led contentious nationalist marches through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. On several occasions, he set up an ad hoc office in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has also been at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, kindling unrest.

His last visit to the Temple Mount was about three months ago, ahead of the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.

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