Netanyahu said to curb Temple Mount access in deal with ultra-conservative rabbi

Activists pushing for Jewish access to Jerusalem holy site claim recent closure to Jews came in exchange for Rabbi Tsvi Tau’s support for government backed by Islamist Ra’am party

Rabbi Tsvi Tau in 2018 (video screenshot)
Rabbi Tsvi Tau in 2018 (video screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly agreed to temporarily curb the entrance of Jews to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount holy site to appease an ultra-conservative rabbi and convince him to publicly back a government propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party, according to a report Wednesday.

The quid pro quo was alleged by unnamed Temple Mount activists who spoke to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Before Netanyahu’s Tuesday midnight deadline to form a government passed, the premier had been pressuring the far-right Religious Zionism party, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, to accept Ra’am as a legitimate political partner.

That pressure campaign ultimately failed. But it did score a marginal victory earlier this week when Rabbi Tsvi Tau, the spiritual leader of the ultra-conservative Noam faction within Religious Zionism, released a letter in which he expressed grudging support for Ra’am playing a role in a Netanyahu-led government.

It would be a “desecration of the Lord’s name” for Ra’am to enter the government, he conceded, but that would be trumped by the “sanctification of God’s name” that would ensue should Netanyahu remain in power.

A combination image showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) casting his vote in the Knesset election in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

“The sanctification will be greater than the desecration,” wrote Tau, who directs the Har Hamor Yeshiva and whose Noam faction — represented in the Knesset by MK Avi Maoz — campaigned almost exclusively on opposing gay rights.

Others, however, backed Smotrich’s anti-Ra’am position. Fifty-five rabbis signed a public petition condemning any partnership with Ra’am in late April, including the prominent Rabbi Shlomo Aviner — and the very same Tau who would later publicly support it.

Wednesday’s report offered a reason for Tau’s sudden shift.

Tau and Noam staunchly oppose the entry of Jews to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, due to its holiness. Many Orthodox rabbis forbid the pilgrimage, saying that it is unknown where in the compound was the exact position of the Holy of Holies chamber within the temples that stood there millennia ago.

A growing number of rabbis have been breaking with that stance in recent years, saying that Jews can freely tour the Temple Mount, except for the upper plaza that today houses the Dome of the Rock. Organizations promoting and facilitating Jewish tours of the site have grown significantly over the past decade, and Tau has led struggles against the mainstreaming of those groups and their views.

Yedioth quoted “senior activists” in Temple Mount organizations as saying that in the days before Rabbi Tau shifted his position regarding Ra’am, Netanyahu’s office had inquired what would convince him to reverse course.

The sources claimed that a senior associate of Tau admitted to them that the rabbi’s office conveyed a message that he wants Jewish access to the Temple Mount curbed.

A man walks past the Dome of the Rock, in the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

The activists argued that this was the reason for the police notification earlier this week that the Temple Mount will be closed to Jews until further notice and at least until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends next week. Reports about the police notification sent to Temple Mount groups said Jews will be able to enter the site on Jerusalem Day next Monday, but that isn’t yet certain.

“Netanyahu is harming Israel’s sovereignty,” one of the activists told Yedioth. “If, after so many years of the government insisting that the Temple Mount remain open on Jerusalem Day, it will be closed — it will be remembered in dreadful disgrace, and all for a political deal.”

The Prime Minister’s Office and MK Maoz both denied such a deal exists. Police said a decision would be made in real time whether to allow Jews to visit the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day, based on security considerations.

Police’s Temple Mount closure came as Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, which often sees increased tensions around the Old City and the Temple Mount site, including this year.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical Temples. It is the site of the third holiest shrine in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, and extended sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. However, it allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount, where Jews are allowed to visit under numerous restrictions, but not to pray.

The Palestinian leadership has a long history of attempting to rally its public in response to alleged Israeli infringements on Muslim sovereignty in the flashpoint compound. Official Palestinian Authority media often shows visits by religious Jews to the site, which it deems “settler invasions.”

Police officers escort a group of religious Jews at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Tensions in Jerusalem, specifically around the Old City, reached the boiling point last month after police prevented people from congregating outside Damascus Gate at the start of Ramadan, which Arabs said was an inflammatory move that obstructed a long-held tradition of gathering at the site during the Muslim holy month. Authorities later canceled the policy.

Additionally, hundreds of Palestinians have marched toward Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank on a nightly basis over the past week, leading to clashes.

The IDF is said to have also bolstered its forces in the West Bank during Ramadan.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that the first Palestinian national elections in 15 years would be indefinitely delayed, amid escalating tensions in the region.

The delay was pinned on Israel ostensibly refusing to allow East Jerusalemites to vote in the election. While Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, Israel views the entire city as its undivided capital and views any PA activity in East Jerusalem as a violation of its sovereignty.

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