‘People will die’: Lapid calls on Netanyahu to prevent Ben Gvir’s Temple Mount visit

Former PM brands his successor ‘weak’ for not reining in the far-right minister; Liberman charges that new government marks ‘the end of Zionism’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a handover ceremony, after taking over the police ministry from outgoing minister Omer Barlev, Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a handover ceremony, after taking over the police ministry from outgoing minister Omer Barlev, Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid on Monday warned against a trip by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, after the far-right lawmaker announced plans to visit the flashpoint holy site.

“Itamar Ben Gvir must not go up to Temple Mount,” Lapid said at the outset of his Yesh Atid party’s weekly Knesset faction meeting. “It is a deliberate provocation that will put lives in danger and cost lives.”

Ben Gvir confirmed Sunday that he plans to visit the Temple Mount, with Hebrew media reporting he may do so as soon as this Tuesday or Wednesday.

Lapid called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restrain Ben Gvir, predicting that the visit could trigger violence. The Temple Mount has been a perennial locus of conflict between Jews and Palestinians, who both revere the hilltop compound.

“Weak though Netanyahu is, he must, this time, stand up and tell him, ‘You are not going to the Temple Mount. People will die,’” the Yesh Atid chief said.

Ben Gvir is one of the three far-right party heads in Netanyahu’s nascent coalition. The newly minted national security minister, who has long been accused of being a provocateur, made several trips to the Temple Mount as a Knesset member and was also a leader of a contentious nationalist march through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. On several occasions he has set up an ad hoc office in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has also been at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“MKs go up [to the Temple Mount], ministers don’t — especially not the minister in charge of the National Security Ministry,” Lapid added in response to a reporters’ questions. “It will be viewed by the whole world as breaking the status quo, even if it’s not.”

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest in Islam. Only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Temple Mount while others are allowed to visit at set times and under strict restrictions, as part of a sensitive status quo.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party and ran on a joint slate with Ben Gvir in the November 1 election, stressed Monday that visiting the Temple Mount is permitted.

“Going up to the Temple Mount is part of the status quo,” he said at the start of Religious Zionism’s faction meeting.

Netanyahu did not mention the Temple Mount at a faction meeting of his Likud party, which was closed to the press.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman speaks during his party’s Knesset faction, holding a copy of the recently signed coalition agreements in his right hand and a copy of Theodor Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State’ in his left, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to concerns about inflaming tensions in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners have prompted criticism with their plans to roll back anti-discrimination protections, tighten Orthodox grip over state institutions and curb immigration to Israel of people who are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies are also leading a judicial reform push that would sharply reduce judicial oversight over politicians, which critics have charged would undermine Israel’s democracy.

Incensed by increased Orthodox control over state bodies and calls to constrain immigration, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman asserted Monday that the new government marked “the end of Zionism.”

“It’s not the end of Israel, at least in the meantime. But certainly it is the end of Zionism,” Liberman said at his right-wing secularist party’s faction meeting.

Holding up a copy of Theodor Herzl’s seminal work “The Jewish State,” Liberman argued there was “a 100% contradiction” between the foundational work of the Zionist movement and the new government’s coalition agreements.

Liberman also criticized the new coalition for intending to shuffle around various parts of government offices, moving some sections to the authority of other ministries. The Education Ministry has been particularly affected, with several pieces to be cleaved off in promises to Netanyahu’s various coalition partners.

“Ignorance has managed to stifle the Enlightenment,” Liberman continued.

“It may have taken more than 140 years, but when you recall the refreshing, renewed spirit of the Enlightenment movement, I am sure that [Enlightenment-era Jewish luminaries] Moses Mendelssohn and Naftali Hertz Wiesel are turning over in their graves as they look at the composition of the Netanyahu government,” he said.

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