'Netanyahu Was Repeatedly Warned of Dangers on Temple Mount'

Source who took part in sensitive forums says intelligence branches have voiced caution time and again. And yet Netanyahu's government showed total complacency in this regard.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian stone-thrower holds a car seat cushion during clashes with Israeli police on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
A Palestinian stone-thrower holds a car seat cushion during clashes with Israeli police on the outskirts of Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s not hard to understand what the East Jerusalem terrorists find in the city’s light-rail system – which on Wednesday was the target of a lethal attack for the second time in two weeks. The tramway is something of a symbol of Jerusalem’s forced unification. The start of its operation, three years ago, heralded a period of reawakening in the city, with the return of tourists and Israeli visitors after the second intifada and the years of neglect that characterized the tenure of the two previous mayors, Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski.

But the tramway is also an accessible and convenient target. The family of Ibrahim al-Akri, the Hamas man who on Wednesday murdered Border Police officer Jadan Assad, related that he left the house agitated after watching a television report about the tension on the Temple Mount. Akri noticed a group of Border Policemen near a light-rail stop and hurtled toward them in his car. Instantly the site became a death trap. As security cameras that documented the incident show clearly, the track constitutes a narrow lane from which escape is almost impossible when a driver speeds through it. Most of those who were standing to the side of the lane when Akri floored the gas pedal were injured.

In fact, Israel itself has embarked on a lethal route in the case of Jerusalem. In addition to the perpetual poverty and poor municipal services that have long been the lot of the capital’s Arab neighborhoods, the past few weeks have seen a long series of issues and events that have additionally fueled tensions in the city. These include incitement by the Palestinian movements, and a broad settlement effort by the Elad association and other Jewish groups in the eastern city.

Still, there is no doubt that the major spark of the current wave of violence is the Temple Mount. Above all else, the series of attacks stems from a deep Palestinian conviction that a covert Israeli plot exists to eliminate existing arrangements on the Mount and expand Jewish worship there. It’s been known for more than a year that the tension there would lead to broader violence.

According to a source who participated in the forums that dealt with this issue in recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ministers and the senior defense echelon were warned repeatedly – orally and in writing – by the intelligence branches that a dangerous situation was developing with regard to the Temple Mount. Intelligence surveys attributed this to a pernicious mixture of provocations by ministers and right-wing MKs, complemented by agitation by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel.

The Netanyahu government showed total complacency in this regard. The cautious and responsible line taken by the prime minister in the recent war in Gaza has not been paralleled in Jerusalem. Since the formation of this coalition last year, there has been a significant increase in the number of visits by its members to the Temple Mount. And not only by backbenchers.

When a minister, Uri Ariel, a deputy minister, Tzipi Hotovely, a deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, and the chairperson of the Interior Commitee, Miri Regev, compete in making declarations aimed at the hard core of activists – the Palestinians discern (albeit wrongly) a government conspiracy. Their allegations have also stirred the Americans and the Europeans, who often dispatch diplomats to Jerusalem to see whether Israel is actually making secret changes on the Temple Mount. The police, too, under political pressure and inspired by the government’s inaction, have showed greater flexibility in allowing Jews to visit the Mount, and thus indirectly contributed to the escalating situation. The politicians, says one senior security official, are not playing with fire using a few matches – they are playing with a flamethrower.

This week, prodded by Jordan and the international community, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel will not change the “status quo” – referring to the understandings that have allowed Jews, since 1967, to visit the mount but not pray there. But two days later, Hotovely visited the Temple Mount and called for a change in the status quo. Where Jordan and the Palestinians are concerned, a deputy minister speaks in the name of the government. All of Israel’s explanations won’t help, besides which Netanyahu himself has started talking about Jerusalem in his speeches – a sign that elections are approaching and that the prime minister will base his campaign, as he did in 1996, on the contention that only he can prevent the city’s partition.

At this time, the Temple Mount is the only issue that can whip up and unite the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a struggle against Israel. According to a report by Yaniv Kubovich in yesterday’s Haaretz (Hebrew edition), the police assessment is that force alone will not be sufficient to quell the current escalation. By sending thousands of policemen to the city, the authorities will be able to partially prevent confrontations and specific terrorist attempts, but long-term calm will also demand political action. Economic steps are needed, too: The distressed Palestinian neighborhoods, particularly those more remote from the western city, require serious attention from the government and the municipality. At present, though, it looks as though the ministers prefer to squabble with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The PA’s militant responses stem from the powerful feelings among the Palestinian public, but also from power struggles involving Hamas and Jordan. Amman’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel came despite the broad intelligence and security aid Jordan receives from Israel, according to foreign media, against the background of the kingdom’s fears of the implications of the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

In recent months, Netanyahu often boasted of the upgraded strategic coordination between Israel and the moderate Sunni countries – Egypt, Jordan, and even covert understandings with Saudi Arabia and a few Gulf states. The continued violence in Jerusalem portends not only the danger of a third intifada; it is liable to topple strategic alliances Israel forged with much work under cover of the instability in the Arab world.

The Eisenkot papers

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who this week summoned Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh and Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot for personal interviews ahead of the appointment of the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is expected to choose Eisenkot. The latter is also the choice of the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, whose recommendation carries weight, though it has no official status.

Ya’alon intends to submit the appointment for the cabinet’s approval on November 16, though one substantial obstacle remains. This week, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein stated, in reply to a query by Ya’alon, that he sees no legal impediment to Eisenkot’s appointment as chief of staff. Yesterday, though, attorney Eldad Yaniv asked Weinstein whether he had examined the moral significance of Eisenkot’s behavior in the “Harpaz document” affair and if, assuming that Eisenkot is chosen, Weinstein intends to submit his testimonies to the police for the perusal of the Turkel committee, which has to approve senior appointments. (The “Harpaz document” refers to an attempt to block the appointment of Yoav Galant as chief of staff to succeed Gabi Ashkenazi.)

In a Facebook post this week, Eldad, who was Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s personal chief of staff when Eisenkot was the prime minister’s military secretary, stated that Eisenkot gave “lying testimony” in his first interrogation by the police in the Ashkenazi affair. “A few days later, when Eisenkot realized that his lie would cost him his career, he went back to the police and decided to tell the truth. How will the chief of staff be able to look IDF cadets in the eyes and tell them that the truth comes first?”

But there appear to be no real grounds for Eldad’s accusations. The document forged by Lt. Col. (res.) Harpaz, a confidant of chief of staff Ashkenazi, was kept in the latter’s office for three months. Ashkenazi ensured that Gantz and Eisenkot saw the document. Eisenkot retained a copy for himself, which he showed to a few senior officers and to two close friends, Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni and Tamir Pardo, currently the director of the Mossad. With the agreement of Ashkenazi’s aide Col. Erez Weiner, Siboni made a copy for himself, which he and Pardo passed indirectly to Channel 2 News correspondent Amnon Abramovich, who made it public on August 6, 2010.

The police investigation began two days later. On August 11, following delays, Ashkenazi gave the police a copy of the document. (Those delays are now at the heart of the question of whether to bring charges against the former chief of staff.) That night, the police took testimony from Eisenkot at his Herzliya home. He told the interrogators that Weiner had shown him the document in May, at Ashkenazi’s instruction. “I read the first page carefully and cast a glance on [at] the second,” Eisenkot said. “I told Erez that in my opinion the document was very serious and that I wanted to talk to the chief of staff about it.”

Eisenkot, who believed the document was genuine, added that he had spoken to Ashkenazi about the matter four or five more times and urged him “to tell all” – that is, to go to Netanyahu, Barak and Weinstein with the information. The interrogators asked Eisenkot, “Did anyone else talk to you about the document?” Eisenkot replied, “I spoke with Benny Gantz. I spoke with Avi Mizrahi [GOC Central Command at the time] and understood from him that he didn’t know [about the document].”

This last sentence, Yaniv says, was false testimony by Eisenkot. A perusal of the complete transcripts of both testimonies (reported about a year ago by Channel 1 correspondents Amir Bar-Shalom and Ayala Hasson) does not support that unequivocal conclusion. Eisenkot gave his second testimony to the police on August 17, 2010. This time he was more frank and detailed. He related that he had done “line-by-line guided reading” of the document and understood that someone had written a “clear strategic plan.” He added, “The document is with me for two-three days, and I decide to consult with a friend and with another friend who is usually present at our meetings. The friend’s name is Gabi Siboni. He’s a colonel in the reserves. Our friendship goes back many years. We meet almost every Friday at a cafe – me, Gabi and another friend, named Tamir [Pardo].”

Eisenkot added, “They took a look at the document and the reply of both of them was that the paper is corrupt, that [I] can’t sit on the fence, and have to take a stand.” According to Eisenkot, Siboni said he wanted to take the document home and read it closely. “We arranged to talk about it the next day. We parted, the three of us, and I made [Siboni] swear that [the document] would remain with him.”

The next day, Siboni, who has an “analytical” mind, Eisenkot continued, told him that it was clear that someone had “devised a very broad strategic plan.” Siboni urged Eisenkot “to take a more meaningful stand.” Eisenkot told Siboni to keep the document and not make use of it. Eisenkot told Siboni he was “dead against” publicizing the document.

Eisenkot was asked why Siboni leaked the document to Channel 2. “I don’t think he did it in order to influence me in any way,” Eisenkot replied. “He saw a corrupt action... he did it at his pace, and I wasn’t aware of what he did in real time.” Siboni told Eisenkot that he had also received a copy of the document from Weiner “and did what he thought was the right thing to do.” Eisenkot told him that he wanted his copy back.

A comparison of the two testimonies does in fact reveal a disturbing disparity. In the first meeting, the interrogators made do with a laconic question, and Eisenkot did not provide the full information but referred only to the two generals he spoke with (in fact, he also spoke with Maj. Gen. Yishai Be’er about the issue). He said nothing about Siboni and Pardo. He fleshed out the details of his testimony only after Siboni told him that he too had been questioned by the police. (Last September, the police, following a second investigation, recommended that Siboni be indicted for coordinating testimonies with Weiner about the way the document was leaked. Eisenkot was not questioned in the second investigation.)

This is no small matter. Even if we take a lenient view, Eisenkot took a “know-nothing” approach in his first testimony and did not make a serious effort to provide the police with the full picture – which could have embarrassed his two close friends, who had been dragged into the affair because they supported him. But the fact is that not only Weinstein and the police, but also the previous state comptroller, Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, as well as the head of his security unit, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Orr, and the military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, saw nothing untoward about his behavior, and attached no special criminal or moral significance to it. Even Ehud Barak, who sees himself as a victim of schemes by Ashkenazi, Weiner and even Siboni, decided to appoint Eisenkot as deputy chief of staff after asking him for details replies about the testimony he gave.

Yaniv’s query to Weinstein is legitimate. However, the allegation itself looks flimsy. It appears improbable that judicial intervention will be undertaken by either the attorney general or the High Court of Justice.

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