President Isaac Herzog said in Wednesday that the “entire world” is concerned about far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who is set to become a government minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s nascent coalition, in comments he apparently intended to keep under wraps.
Herzog’s remarks, seemingly made while thinking a microphone he had was off, came as he met with party representatives at his official residence in Jerusalem to hear their formal recommendations for who should lead the next government.
Videos of the consultations are broadcast live online as part of a transparency effort, though the hot mic faux pas showed that talks also take place away from the public eye.
After Herzog’s meeting with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also a part of Netanyahu’s bloc, the video broadcast ended but the audio continued, capturing him relaying concerns about Ben Gvir to lawmakers.
“There’s one issue I didn’t talk about because I don’t want to shame anyone,” Herzog said. “You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That’s a critical issue.”
In the recording, in a clear reference to Ben Gvir, Herzog went on to say, “You have a partner that the entire world is anxious about.”
“I told him that too, between us. It’s not for publication. I don’t want to cause a stir. But I think you have a responsibility,” Herzog said.
A member of the Shas delegation is heard saying, “but he’s moderated,” before the recording was cut off.
Ben Gvir, the head of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, has demanded he receive the public security ministry overseeing police in the incoming government.
As public security minister, Ben Gvir would have control over law enforcement on the flashpoint Temple Mount holy site, where activists have increasingly clamored for expanded Jewish rights and where courts have given the police wide leeway to set policies aimed at maintaining public order.
Ben Gvir, who frequently visits Temple Mount and supports allowing Jewish prayer there, has a long history of inciting violence and played a role in stoking tensions ahead of last year’s war between Israel and Gaza terror groups.
In response to the recording, Herzog’s office said he noted in his conversation with Shas representatives “appeals made to him with concern over MK Itamar Ben Gvir’s positions on certain matters.”
The president’s office repeated that Herzog had raised the matter in a conversation with Ben Gvir a few days ago.
Jordan’s King Abdullah raised the issue of the Temple Mount and Ben Gvir during a meeting with Herzog earlier this week, warning Israel against making unilateral changes to the status quo at the holy site, a Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel. Herzog and the monarch met in Egypt on the sidelines of the COP27 climate conference.
Ben Gvir said in response to the recording that he and Herzog have “held many fruitful conversations in recent weeks.”
He said Herzog had told him that “he was certain that if I speak with the world, they will realize and acknowledge that I don’t make generalizations against all Arabs.”
Ben Gvir added that he has “started to meet with diplomats and will work to explain the positions of Otzma Yehudit around the world.”
Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit is part of the far-right Religious Zionism alliance led by Bezalel Smotrich. The party won 14 seats in last week’s election, making it the third largest in the Knesset and the second biggest in Netanyahu’s bloc, and giving its leaders significant sway in the incoming coalition. Religious Zionism also includes the homophobic Noam party.
Despite running on a joint slate, Herzog will meet with all three factions separately on Thursday, according to a schedule from the President’s Residence.
Otzma Yehudit was once considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics but Netanyahu ushered the party into the mainstream last year.
Netanyahu met Ben Gvir for informal coalition talks on Monday. The two were pictured for the first time together after Netanyahu refused to publicly appear alongside the far-right lawmaker during the election campaign. Ben Gvir said the Monday meeting “was held in a good atmosphere.”
Foreign allies and Jewish groups have warned against Ben Gvir’s inclusion in the government.
A Sunday report said Jordanian officials warned Israel that bilateral ties will suffer if Jerusalem’s new government tries to change the Temple Mount status quo arrangement. Jordan acts as a custodian of the holy site.
On Tuesday, the official Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement issued an extraordinary call to Netanyahu urging him not to give Ben Gvir a cabinet post.
The demand represented a major escalation in the rhetoric between international Jewish organizations and the presumed next government over its likely inclusion of far-right politicians with their history of anti-Arab, anti-LGBTQ and anti-progressive Judaism comments and actions.
At least two pro-Israel Democrats in the US Congress cautioned Israel against further legitimizing Ben Gvir ahead of the elections. Netanyahu slapped down the warnings, saying he would not “bow his head” to the Americans.
While visiting Washington ahead of the election, Herzog repeatedly urged US officials and Jewish leaders to respect the results of the election and maintain strong ties to Israel no matter its outcome, in an apparent bid to calm the waters ahead of Ben Gvir’s rise.