AnalysisAnatomy of an escalation averted

Lapid pressed, Bennett folded: The political drama around Temple Mount worship

The PM wanted to make history, but regional and political realities intervened, and the alternate PM stepped in to defuse the crisis

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

An Israeli police officer stands guard as a Jewish group walks near the Dome of the Rock Mosque atop the Temple Mount on Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av), a day of fasting commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Sunday, July 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
An Israeli police officer stands guard as a Jewish group walks near the Dome of the Rock Mosque atop the Temple Mount on Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av), a day of fasting commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Sunday, July 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Yair Lapid proved on Monday that he’s much more than the alternate prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. He is the man who cut through the talk of a new policy regarding Jewish worship on the Temple Mount. It was he who spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after Bennett had issued an extraordinary statement hailing the “maintaining of Jewish worship” at the site, and explained that the publication was a mistake. And it was he who then marketed to journalists the message that there is no change to the status quo on the Temple Mount, Bennett’s announcement notwithstanding.

Lapid also spoke with the Jordanian monarchy and explained to the king’s men that no change is taking place on the Temple Mount. Bennett himself said nothing.

Government ministers say that this episode, which stirred up the region and threatened to do much more than that, marks the first time Bennett has given in to the true balance of power and interests in the government.

The developments relating to the Temple Mount on Sunday, Tisha B’Av, created immense tension. The last series of events at the Mount and in East Jerusalem that caused an Israeli-Palestinian escalation and led to Operation Guardian of the Walls in May have not been forgotten, and there were people who feared that we were on course to another installment in July.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 19, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

On Friday evening, the acting American ambassador, Michael Ratney, called Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at his home in Kochav Yair. Ratney wanted to know about the situation on the mount, and the intelligence assessment ahead of Sunday’s visits of Jews and Muslims.

Barlev responded that things were under control, but also that he didn’t know how they would develop. A former commander of the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, Labor MK Barlev is a new minister and is not fully familiar with the security envelope regarding the mount. But he is well aware of the contested holy site’s potential incendiary nature and is regarded as a clear-headed and careful man.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) meets the chargé d’affairs at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, at the Prime Minister’s Office, June 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

He has already been through one risky episode, in his first week on the job, when he approved the re-run of the Jerusalem flag march, despite Hamas threats to stir things up. The police had promised to maintain order and prevent confrontation, and he put his faith in them. “I’m diving into an empty pool,” Barlev told Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and the police top brass at the time. “If you don’t fill it with water. I’ll crash first and you’ll follow.”

On Saturday night, dozens of Muslims streamed to Al-Aqsa Mosque and barricaded themselves inside. Surprisingly, most of them were Arab Israelis — people from the Islamic Movement, residents of Umm al-Fahm. They stockpiled large rocks, chairs and various other objects and prepared to confront the Jewish worshipers. The Muslims also broke a wall at the mosque during the night in order to better equip themselves and to improve their fields of vision.

Israeli security forces clash with Muslim worshippers at the Temple Mount, July 18, 2021 (Screen grab/Twitter)

Still, the police managed to extract them by morning and allowed the first of almost 1,700 Jewish visitors to enter the compound as planned. In the course of the day, about 30 Arabs and 4 Jews were arrested on the mount. Nineteen of the Arabs are still in detention. The Jews, all of whom were held for public order offenses, were released after fairly brief questioning.

The day’s Jewish visits passed off relatively calmly: The groups came to the mount, walked around, and even prayed without disturbance. Yamina’s Amichai Chikli sang the national anthem, which is forbidden on the mount. Nothing particularly untoward happened, there were no injuries, and everything was coming to a relatively quiet conclusion until Bennett decided to issue a letter of thanks to the public security minister and to the police, “for managing the events on the Temple Mount with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount [italics added]. Prime Minister Bennett emphasized that freedom of worship on the Temple Mount will be fully preserved for Muslims as well, who will soon be marking the fast of the Day of Arafah and the Eid al-Adha.

Soon after the publication of this statement, the heavens opened. The Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Turkey, and even the coalition’s own Ra’am party fired off denunciations of the Jewish visits to the Al-Aqsa compound, the Haram al-Sharif.

The question being debated in government circles on Monday was whether Bennett carefully crafted the draft in order to change the sensitive status quo on the Temple Mount, or rather “blew the wording big time and didn’t realize it, perhaps because of the Tisha B’Av fast,” as one senior government minister put it.

In the wake of the initial furor, Bennett said he had intended to refer to Jewish visits, not Jewish worship. But Jewish prayer on the Mount, which has been quietly going on for years, was certainly on his mind. The prime minister is an Orthodox Zionist, and members of his own Yamina party went to the mount on Sunday and prayed there.

Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, as reported by Channel 12 news, July 17, 2021. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Bennett did want to make history, but the regional and political realities quickly reined him in. He faced immense pressures from regional heads of state, the Palestinian Authority, and centrist and leftist forces in the government and coalition.

As stated, the crisis management was overseen by Lapid, who dealt with both the Americans and the Jordanians, who had a 2015 Israeli commitment to remind the government about. The Temple Mount researcher Nadav Shargai, in his 2020 book “Al-Aqsa Terror,” published a document of understandings brokered in October 2015 by secretary of state John Kerry between King Abdullah and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The second clause specifies that religious worship on the Mount is for Muslims only, and Jews may only visit. Netanyahu publicly promised at the time: “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.”

Related: Israel quietly letting Jews pray on Temple Mount, in break with status quo — TV

Related: Israel’s PM is playing with fire on the Temple Mount

While Lapid declared Monday that there was “no change to the status quo on the Temple Mount,” Bennett did not change the text of his statement, which remained on the prime minister’s social media pages. But that did not help him with right-wing leaders who claimed he had again capitulated to Mansour Abbas and Raam, and to Lapid.

Among some right-wing critics, the argument is that Bennett got this wrong every which way: He should have taken the credit for the Jewish prayer that has in any case been taking place on the Mount, and promised to ensure that everything would go ahead in an orderly fashion, without clashes. Instead, he folded to coalition pressure, the prayers will continue, and he is taking heat from the likes of Miki Zohar, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Moshe Feiglin.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews pray near the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. Officially, Jewish prayer atop the mount is forbidden (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Jewish prayer will indeed continue on the mount, despite the crisis of the past few days, which almost prompted a major escalation. The police will impose greater oversight and will rein in the prayers, but nobody can completely stop them now. The new path is to contain them, as one minister explained, and not jump up to stop everyone who mumbles a few verses. It’s not a dramatic change of the status quo, but it is a cumulative change in the situation at the most dangerous place in the world.

This article was first published in Hebrew on the Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

Most Popular
read more: