AnalysisThe two ultra-Orthodox parties fiercely oppose Jews visits

Fire on the Mount? How the new government might shift policy at flashpoint holy site

Far-right leader Ben Gvir and others in his party are longtime advocates for increased Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, and activists hope they’ll come through on promises

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount compound escorted by police officers on March 31, 2022 (Facebook screenshot; used under clause 27a of the copyright law)
Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount compound escorted by police officers on March 31, 2022 (Facebook screenshot; used under clause 27a of the copyright law)

Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir is a well-known advocate of increased Jewish rights on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where the activities of non-Muslims — including the right to prayer — are strictly limited.

The far-right leader and his party are set to be a crucial part of the governing coalition put forth by Benjamin Netanyahu, in which Ben Gvir is seeking to be public security minister — a role that carries with it authority over Israeli policy on the Temple Mount. As such, what changes might the next government make to arrangements at the incendiary holy site?

For the last two decades, activist organizations have been advocating for increased Jewish rights at the Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism, and, as the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the world for Muslims.

It also lies at the center of the competing national claims of Israel and the Palestinians, and the actions of Israeli security forces and politicians at the site have on several occasions been followed by intense bouts of violence with the Palestinians. Israel extended its sovereignty to the Mount and the rest of the Old City when it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from its Jordanian rulers in 1967, but allowed the Waqf (Muslim trust) to continue to administer its holy sites, and determined that Jews would be allowed to visit but not to pray there.

Ben Gvir has been a frequent visitor to the Temple Mount for many years, and other members of his party — and the Religious Zionism party, with which Otzma Yehudit is allied — are, like him, ardent advocates of expanding Jewish rights and Israeli control at the site.

The 14 seats held by the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance will give Ben Gvir and his allies leverage to push for increased Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. Ben Gvir said during his election campaign that Jews deserve equal rights to Muslims at the site.

A Jewish man prays on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 19, 2021 (Jeremy Sharon)

Critically, it is the Israel Police that largely determines policy on the Temple Mount regarding Jewish prayer and visiting hours. If Ben Gvir is awarded the public security ministry, which controls the Police, he will in effect have authority over such decisions.

Although the High Court of Justice has affirmed the right of Jews to pray at the mount, it has ruled that the police are entitled to restrict this right if they believe allowing Jewish prayer could endanger public security.

As a result, the police have imposed a blanket ban on public Jewish prayer and the use of items such as prayer shawls and phylacteries, in line with the status quo agreement between Israel and Jordan dating back to 1967.

The activists’ agenda

Ahead of the general election, the Beyadenu organization, which advocates for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount, presented a list of 10 steps to expand Jewish rights and assert greater Israeli control of the holy site to candidates in the primary elections of Likud and Religious Zionism.

Jewish men pray in a quorum on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 19, 2021. (Jeremy Sharon)

Beyadenu’s list, dubbed “The Ten Principles for the Path to Sovereignty on the Temple Mount,” includes granting Jews freedom of worship on the Temple Mount and adding the site to the list of Israel’s holy places as defined in the Law for the Holy Places.

The other principles on Beyadenu’s list include introducing study of the Temple Mount in Israel’s school curriculum; freedom of movement for Jews on the Temple Mount; prevention of the destruction of archaeological artifacts at the site; equal visitation hours for Jews and Muslims and opening the site for Jews on Shabbat, Jewish holidays and at night; allowing Jews to enter from more than just one gate; establishing a governmental agency for administering the site; signposting the entrance to the site; and upgrading the access bridge to the Mughrabi Gate, the only current entry point for non-Muslims.

Tom Nisani, the director of the Beyadenu organization, which is one of the principal Temple Mount activist groups, said that although several items on the organization’s list will take time to implement, policies such as the right to public prayer, increasing Jewish visiting hours, and preventing the destruction of antiquities could all be put into effect immediately.

Nisani also expressed hope that a synagogue could be established in the future on the Temple Mount, at first within an existing structure on the site but eventually in a new, dedicated building.

He acknowledged, however, that such a goal would take time to achieve.

According to Beyadenu, several members of both the Religious Zionism and Likud parties have endorsed the group’s list of goals.

Religious Zionism party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich has in the past called for the establishment of a synagogue on the Temple Mount, despite the fact that he himself does not visit the site.

Ahead of Tuesday’s general election, Ben Gvir repeated his call for equal Jewish rights on the Temple Mount.

“There is a problem of racism on the Temple Mount, which violates the status quo,” he told The Times of Israel, pointing out the large discrepancy in visiting hours for Jews and Muslims.

“A Jew who prays on the Temple Mount gets arrested,” he continued. “Why are Arabs allowed to pray and Jews are forbidden to pray? This is racism against Jews. I want equal rights. It can’t be that [the rights] of Jews are harmed just because they are Jews.”

Ultra-Orthodox opposition

Although demonstrative Jewish prayer is still banned, silent prayer without prayer items has been allowed by the police in recent years in contrast to earlier policy.

The change began during Gilad Erdan’s tenure as public security minister from 2015 to 2020 in two previous Netanyahu-led governments.

Portrait of Minister of Interior Security, Gilad Erdan, overlooking the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on June 27, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Erdan took several steps to relax restrictions on Jewish rights at the site, including the appointment of a Jerusalem District Police commander who was sympathetic to the demands of the Temple Mount groups and activists.

One factor that might restrain the next government from enacting the agenda of the Temple Mount organizations is the presence in the coalition of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are fiercely opposed to Jews visiting the site.

Both Shas and United Torah Judaism actively attacked Ben Gvir during the election campaign over his advocacy for Jewish Temple Mount visitation.

Shas party head Aryeh Deri celebrates with supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem. November 1, 2022 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90 )

Netanyahu will also be anxious to restrain his coalition partners on this incendiary issue.

Dramatically changing the status quo on the Temple Mount would create a severe diplomatic crisis with Jordan, whose informal status as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem — and the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock sites in particular — is critical to the legitimacy of the Hashemite regime, which rules the country.

Netanyahu will also be acutely aware that Israeli actions on the Temple Mount have on numerous occasions led to severe outbreaks of violence.

The proximate cause of the May 2021 riots and the war with Gaza was police action against Palestinian rioters at the site, including entering the al-Aqsa mosque, while late prime minister Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit to the holy place was a catalyst for the onslaught of Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israelis in the Second Intifada.

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