Inside storyDavid Bitan: 'People have become extremists'

On the way up to the Temple Mount, Likud is becoming Otzma Yehudit

Most ruling party members have always shunned visits to the holy site, both for security and religious reasons, but a new breed of Likud MKs are following the lead of the far-right

Shalom Yerushalmi

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

From right to left: Likud MKs Amit Halevi, Ariel Kallner and Dan Illouz with former MK Shuli Mualem on the Temple Mount on May 18, 2023. (Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
From right to left: Likud MKs Amit Halevi, Ariel Kallner and Dan Illouz with former MK Shuli Mualem on the Temple Mount on May 18, 2023. (Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Not long ago I asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu why he doesn’t go up to the Temple Mount. The prime minister has never visited the holy site — not even when he was head of the opposition or away from public office. The other Likud leaders, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Shamir, did not go up to the Temple Mount either. Only Ariel Sharon went there, as the chairman of the opposition, in September 2000, a visit which sparked bloody riots on the Mount and in Jerusalem, igniting the Second Intifada.

Netanyahu told me at first that he didn’t need this kind of connection of holiness and then added that if he still wanted a spiritual connection, he would go to the Western Wall tunnel. The opening of the tunnel authorized by Netanyahu and Likud leaders in September 1996 led to a mini-war of sorts with the Palestinian Authority, which cost the lives of 19 soldiers and Border Police fighters and some 60 Palestinians.

The prime minister did not visit the Temple Mount on Thursday, Jerusalem Day, either, of course, and not only for spiritual reasons. In recent weeks, he has barely succeeded in restraining Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, the Temple Mount enthusiast, from going up, in order to prevent another war with our neighbors.

Since becoming a minister, Ben Gvir has toured the Temple Mount just once, in a hurried early morning visit in January that drew widespread international condemnation. On Jerusalem Day, his wife, Ayala Ben Gvir, went up instead and used the opportunity to attack Netanyahu and accuse him of trying to harm her husband.

But Thursday’s story is not about Ben Gvir, it’s about the Likud.

Three Likud members of the Knesset, the young guard of the party, went up to the Temple Mount: Ariel Kallner, Amit Halevi, and Dan Illouz. Joining them were Minister of Negev and Galilee Affairs Yitzhak Wasserlauf and MK Yitzhak Kreuzer, both of Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Standing in front of the Dome of the Rock, they sang Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.

The ascension of representatives of the ruling party to the Temple Mount led to harsh condemnation not only from the Palestinian Authority but also from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries. This time, fortunately, there was no flare-up in Gaza and the West Bank following the move.

The Likud is becoming more radical. These days, there are no longer any major differences of opinion between some senior Likud members and those of Otzma Yehudit. In the past, Likud MKs like Moshe Feiglin and Yehuda Glick who went up to the Temple Mount were quickly cast aside. Their places have been taken by a rising force in the party — Orthodox MKs who don’t heed either the religious ban on going up or the constraints of the security implications.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site for Jews, as the location of the two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For decades, Jewish religious authorities issued strict prohibitions against visiting the Temple Mount, on the grounds that people could accidentally defile the site by setting foot on the hallowed area where the Temple’s Holy of Holies was located.

From left: Likud MKs Amit Halevi, Ariel Kallner and Dan Illouz with former MK Shuli Mualem and representative of the Temple Mount Authority group (C) on the Temple Mount on May 18, 2023. (Courtesy: Temple Mount Authority)

It’s no surprise that MK David Bitan, perhaps the real barometer of the old Likud, is horrified by the phenomenon.

“I view Knesset members from the Likud going up to the Temple Mount as inappropriate. It is not worthy. People have become extremists,” Bitan said Thursday.

Moshe Gafni, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and a coalition member,  also decried the phenomenon, sending a letter to Netanyahu and asking him to prevent MKs from going onto the Mount. However, Gafni’s motivations are largely religious and not political.

“Recently MKs and ministers have been going up to the Temple Mount, just today a large number of elected officials from different factions in the Knesset went up there. The decision is in your hands,” Gafni wrote.

“I am turning and asking you to prevent the ascent to the Temple Mount; For the political reasons regarding world reactions, for the security reasons regarding the incitement it causes, particularly with the Muslim world, and mainly because there is no real reason for them to do so — it is not an exercise in sovereignty, rather a desecration of God’s name at the holiest site of the Jewish people,” Gafni specified.

Gafni is correct with every word, while Bitan recognizes the processes transforming Likud and the dangers.

Likud becoming a Jewish supremacist party like Otzma Yehudit would be a disaster. And it’s not just the three MKs who went up to the Mount; there are several current Likud members like Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, Minister for the Advancement of the Status of Women Mai Golan, and MK Nissim Vaturi who would be right at home in Ben Gvir’s party.

What business do these people have in the Likud? Where is the connection between them and the venerable national-liberal party that once existed?

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

From a broad perspective, the left is shifting to the center, which itself is leaning right. And the right is becoming national-religious. At the Jerusalem Day event those celebrating, like every year, were those wearing the knitted kippot of the national religious camp. On this national holiday, it was hard to find even a single secular person out celebrating, not even the paratroopers who liberated the Old City.

Israelis wave flags ahead of a march marking Jerusalem Day, in front of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, May 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

At the Flag March itself, I carried out an exercise. On King George Street, I met a small group of young guys, students from a Petach Tikva high school who had come to participate in the parade. I asked them if they knew who Haim-Moshe Shapira was.

No one knew. I told them that Shapira was the leader of the National Religious Party and the Minister of the Interior before the Six Day War. Shapira and the other two party ministers, Yosef Burg and Zerach Warhaftig, strongly opposed the start of the war in a first vote, and therefore it was delayed. After the war, Shapira asked to return the recently conquered territories and turn Jerusalem into an international city, the complete opposite of what it symbolizes now.

“That cannot be true,” one of them told me, and another added: “What the hell, get out of here, you are depressing us.”

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