Bennett's Shift on Jewish Prayer on the Temple Mount May Be a Game Changer

A statement by him seems to mark the first time an Israeli prime minister has officially referred to preserving Jewish freedom of worship at the Jerusalem flash point

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Jews visiting the Temple Mount on Sunday.
Jews visiting the Temple Mount on Sunday.Credit: Mahmoud Illean / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

>> UPDATE: Bennett backtracks on statement backing Jewish freedom of worship on Temple Mount.

Someone apparently decided that Saturday night, the eve of the Tisha B’Av fast day, was the right time to make sure the Israeli media knew about the changes to the status quo regarding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

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Journalists enthusiastically reported on the quiet revolution taking place on the Mount: regular Jewish prayer services under the auspices of the police, in the place where a ban on Jewish prayer had been strictly enforced for decades, certainly prayer in groups. The change has evolved over the past two years; it had already been reported on, but of course, a report on Channel 12 News has a greater effect.

On Sunday morning, when hundreds of Jews once again ascended to the Mount, among them two legislators from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, there were clashes between Muslim worshippers and the police. In one incident a Muslim prayer hall was damaged.

Muslims clashing with the Israel Police on the Temple Mount on Sunday.Credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters

The Palestinian media reported that dozens of people were hurt from gas inhalation and blows from police batons. Hamas and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement were just waiting for the opportunity. The clashes, which weren’t especially intense, were described as if combat had taken place in the compound. The presence of Jews on the Mount was highlighted.

Bennett was closely following events, especially since Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, begins Monday night and is expected to bring thousands of Muslim worshippers to the Mount. At Bennett’s orders, the police were prepared for the events; events on the Mount fall under the supervision of the Jerusalem police chief, the national police commissioner and the public security minister. By afternoon, 1,679 Jews had entered and exited the compound, and the government was happy that despite the extensive coverage in the Arab media, things didn’t get out of hand.

The pleased Bennett quickly released a statement, with his office thanking Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai “for managing the events on the Temple Mount responsibly and with discretion, while preserving freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount. The prime minister stressed that freedom of worship will continue to be fully preserved for Muslims, who are marking the Day of Arafah and the Feast of the Sacrifice.”

This statement deviated somewhat from Israel’s declared line until now and essentially validated the changes that have been taking place. It’s apparently the first time the Israeli prime minister, in an official statement, has explicitly referred to preserving Jewish freedom of worship on the Temple Mount.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Several experts who have been following events at the site told Haaretz that during his entire premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu was careful to avoid similar remarks. (Though the previous public security ministers, Likud members Amir Ohana and Gilad Erdan, occasionally referred to changes in the status quo.)

Moreover, in 2015, amid the crisis with Jordan and the United States and the "knife intifada" in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Netanyahu released a statement saying that Israel was committed to the status quo and would continue to enforce its policy under which “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount and non-Muslims will visit there” – that is, without praying. The wording was coordinated with Jordan, with the mediation of then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Over the last two months, since the fighting with the Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan, the United States and, to some extent, the Palestinian Authority have been working behind the scenes to sever the link Hamas has created between itself and Jerusalem. Bennett’s announcement is liable to embarrass all those parties to the efforts, just after the new prime minister managed to turn over a new leaf in relations with Jordan and was hosted by King Abdullah.

As usual when it comes to Jerusalem, things are happening at a sensitive time: On Monday, Abdullah is scheduled to pay his first visit to U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington. We can assume the issue will come up.

There’s also the issue of the United Arab List. Bennett, unlike Netanyahu, heads a governing coalition that includes an Islamic party. It's no coincidence that on Sunday, the United Arab List and the southern faction of the Islamic Movement, with which it is affiliated, released a statement condemning “the invasion by large numbers of settlers and the violation of Al-Aqsa’s sanctity.” The party and the movement also warned that they would support any Palestinian effort to prevent a change to the status quo.

Jordan's King Abdullah at a meeting in Amman this year.Credit: Pool / Reuters

Bennett also has limited room to maneuver on the other side. He has never shown an interest in visiting the Temple Mount, but in the religious-Zionist community over the past two decades the number of people supporting Jewish prayer there has increased significantly. And with Likud and the far-right Religious Zionism party in the opposition, Bennett will have a hard time backtracking from his statement, even if the United Arab List and the Jordanians are angry.

The Qatari connection

So Sunday we received another reminder of the unbearable ease with which a new blaze can be lit on the Temple Mount, even if this time the police may have put it out quickly. The same site has provided the tinder many times in the past, including during the recent conflict with Gaza.

Hamas released a moderate response to the events on the Mount. That could be because the group seeks a peaceful Eid al-Adha after the previous holiday, Eid al-Fitr, took place during the fighting two months ago. But Hamas’ leaders in Gaza are nervous because Israel has been making it harder for the Strip to receive the monthly transfer of cash from Qatar.

A fisherman in Gaza waving a Palestinian flag last week. Credit: Said Khatib / AFP

After the fighting in May, Israel announced a change in the rules regarding Qatari support. The Bennett-Yair Lapid government that took over from Netanyahu's team is demanding that the support be under international supervision rather than cash-filled suitcases, which the previous government allowed in order to buy temporary peace in Gaza three years ago.

The new arrangement is still being drawn up, in collaboration with Qatar and Egypt. Israel is very unimpressed by Qatar, which has contributed to the recent escalation with provocative broadcasts on Al Jazeera. But Israel can’t afford to shake the Qataris off altogether. The money must continue to flow.

What's being discussed is $25 million a month: $8 million for fuel purchases (the amount fluctuates based on market prices), about $10 million for payments to needy families ($100 per family) and $7 million for the salaries of tens of thousands of workers, mostly Hamas government employees. The aim is to utilize an existing mechanism of financial support operated by the United Nations and to transfer the aid to the needy families through a kind of debit card.

Israel is disturbed by the possible reaction of the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, to recent events. Until the fighting in May, the intelligence community believed that Sinwar was largely concerned with the well-being of Gazans, and his moves could be analyzed as a factor influencing Hamas’ survival in power. But since May, when he chose to exploit the tension in Jerusalem and spark a violent confrontation in the Strip, doubts have been mounting. To Israelis, his considerations now seem quite different.

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