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Behind the Scenes of Netanyahu's Flip-flop on the Temple Mount

Although Netanyahu finally did the right thing on the Temple Mount, the damage was done. Will the capitulation push his supporters over the edge?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu carries a metal detector on his back as Regev, Bitan, Shakked and Bennett whip him.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

If only we could attribute the craziness that’s been rampant of late here to the inhuman, intolerable heat that evaporates one’s common sense. For more than a week, a regional military, technological and intelligence power, which purports to be a light unto the gentiles and a quiet neighborhood in a dangerous jungle, has been immersed up to its neck in implementing security procedures. Metal detectors that are installed and un-installed, cameras possessing various levels of smartness, and body searches, yes or no. Is this a state or a security company?

Presiding over these festivities has been the national “instructor,” Benjamin Netanyahu. He “gave the instruction” to install the detectors, but gave no instruction for their removal. They were removed. He “gave the instruction” to install cameras – but not to un-install them. They were un-installed. He “gave the instruction” to conduct body searches of worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque (an instruction that can’t be implemented, and is unlikely to be). He “gave the instruction” to hold off on the removal of the settlers who illegally invaded a building in Hebron. Let them have the benefit of the current chaos.

On Wednesday evening, as this column was being written, the prime minister’s bureau announced that he had “instructed” Likud MK Yoav Kish to submit a bill that would expand Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to incorporate Ma’aleh Adumim and the settlements of the Gush Etzion Regional Council in the West Bank. When is the bill to be discussed? In November. Don’t hold your breath.

Then, a little before the chimes of midnight, the mobiles chirped again: Netanyahu’s bureau announced that the prime minister will “act” to put a stop to the inflammatory broadcasts of Al-Jazeera from Israel. And a bit later, this time with no announcement to the media, and ostensibly without instruction, from out of nowhere, trucks pulled up next to the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, and their occupants dismantled all the security means still in place there – fences, railings, rope bridges – and transported them dishonorably to police storage depots. Good thing that amid the hurly-burly of dismantling and taking apart and removing and cleaning and erasing every vestige of what had been there, they didn’t haul off the Muslim shrines as well.

The right decision was made in the end, but only after all the wrong ones were tried. We got shame and war both, in Churchill’s words. The capitulation of the right-wing government, of our hold-your-head-high prime minister, defender of Israel and its sovereignty, the Judas Maccabeus of our generation, was complete down to the last hold-out.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who just a day earlier in the Knesset made a festive declaration in support of the prime minister, could not help himself and went on the attack in a radio interview on Thursday: “Israel is emerging weakened ... There has been political feebleness ... The final response to continuing terror has not yet been given.”

A subplot in this Hanoch Levin-like play was the heroic “rescue operation” that actually never took place, at the Israeli embassy in Amman (which was observed live from the situation room at the Foreign Ministry; a senior official there told me that at no point did the populace gather around the embassy building; this was no rerun of the event a few years ago at the Israeli embassy in Cairo).

What really exceeded all limits was the reception ceremony for the Hero of Israel, aka the security guard who responded with lethal fire to a stabbing attempt at the Amman embassy. With disgraceful cynicism, Netanyahu squeezed every last drop from the Jordanian lemon. Instead of being silent and thanking the good Lord and King Abdullah for their help in the quick resolution of the crisis, he launched a frenetic damage-control operation among his political base. Netanyahu brought in the security guard, named Ziv, whom Jordan views as a murderer, and was photographed hugging and gawking at him with grateful eyes. By doing so, the premier infuriated the Jordanian leadership and public alike, and indirectly contributed to the continued refusal of Palestinian worshipers, who heed the instructions of the Jordanian Waqf charitable trust at the Temple Mount, to approach the shrines there. Only on Thursday morning, when all vestiges of police-security-state mechanisms at the Mount had been removed, did the Waqf announce the return to routine there.

Netanyahu hugs Ziv, a security officer who worked at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 25, 2017.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

Netanyahu followed the short and secured journey of the Israeli embassy staff to Allenby Bridge by means of worried phone calls (“Are you in Israel already?”), whose transcripts were immediately conveyed to the media. You’d think the evacuated diplomats had navigated their way by foot to the border crossing amid warring tribes in Libya or by way of ISIS strongholds in Sinai, not from the capital of Jordan.

Haunted by grim polls and growing dissatisfaction among his supporters, Netanyahu seems to have lost the brakes and the element of responsibility that usually guide him when it comes to issues involving national security. If at the start of the chain of events around the Temple Mount – the terrorist attack on July 14 in which two Border Policemen were killed – he conducted himself in a not unreasonable way, fear of losing outpost voters from his electoral base swept him quickly into foreign territory.

The U-turn made by the security cabinet under his guidance, when he decided to remove the metal detectors from the entry gates to the Temple Mount about a week after they were installed, was seen by the vast majority of the public as a capitulation. In the circumstances that developed, it was the logical and necessary move. The only move possible, really. But the reasonable citizen had a hard time understanding the sense of it. After all, the situation had only escalated in the interim. Passions ran high. Three members of a family were murdered in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, there was a stabbing attack in Petah Tikva, the Palestinians displayed growing extremism, the comments in the social networks grew more militant, and the Jordanian Waqf toughened its stance – until Israel hoisted the white flag, for the whole world to see. If anything, then, what seemed to be required were increased security measures, not a return to the status quo ante of July 14.

Immune system

As the police investigation of Case 1000, involving gifts and gratuities, nears its end, the last thing Netanyahu needs is for “his” public to turn away from him. But that’s just what happened this week. The electorate is angry and feels it was duped. Security is not security, the zigzags are multiplying, judiciousness is cast into doubt, and imaginary Israeli “sovereignty” over the Temple Mount has been exposed in all its nakedness. In opinion polls, most of the Jewish public swears loyalty to the Mount, but that’s a hollow statement. At any given moment, Israelis who come to Jerusalem will prefer a good meal in the Mahane Yehuda produce market and shopping in the Mamilla mall over a visit there.

The political rivals who constantly run rings around Netanyahu, and even his most salient supporters – the faithful attack dogs from Likud, among them Culture Minister Miri Regev and coalition Whip MK David Bitan, that he trains to protect him from persecutors – are baring sharp teeth at the premier while nipping at his heels.

“The security cabinet decision is regrettable,” Regev reprimanded him from New York. “Leaving the metal detectors on the Temple Mount is a test of sovereignty,” Bitan preached from the Likud benches in the Knesset.

Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin ignored Netanyahu’s importuning and voted against removal of the metal detectors. He was joined by Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi and leader of the camp that objected to removing them, and by Bennett’s party colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Some in Likud noticed that Gideon Sa’ar, who is currently paving his way back into political life and has in the past sniped at Netanyahu from the right on issues involving Jerusalem, was silent this time.

Palestinians celebrate at the Lions Gate in Jerusalem after Israel removes security restrictions implemented on Temple Mount, July 24, 2017. Credit: Emil Salman

The prime minister has in the past executed certain moves that conflicted with the positions of his political “base,” and survived. Sometimes he even emerges strengthened from this. He released many terrorists in his first two terms, including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and more than a thousand others in return for Gilad Shalit, in 2011. He resurrected moribund Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and refrained from military operations in the Gaza Strip without being tempted to capture and eradicate and liquidate Hamas infrastructures. He also froze construction in the settlements and declared his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Seemingly, nothing has changed. Netanyahu has been revealed in his familiar form. There are those who see the recent glitch as a minor tremor on his wing. But something has changed. The walls are collapsing in rapid succession. His immune system is weaker. His status has been undermined. His authority is crumbling. There’s no better proof of this than the fact that the Likud young guard (!) issued an angry statement expressing nothing less than “disgust” at the security cabinet’s decision. Lucky they didn’t summon their party leader for a hearing before his ouster.

And when the family organ Israel Hayom runs as its headline, “Netanyahu’s display of impotence Israel’s response to Temple Mount attack was feeble and frightened,” on the very day that he most needs support and a warm embrace form the regular sycophants – it’s clear that something momentous has happened.

Whether that shift in editorial policy is related to Case 2000 – involving Netanyahu’s conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes – or whether it’s connected to the appointment of a new chief editor or a red-letter directive from the paper’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, in Las Vegas, the bottom line is clear: Bibi and the Bibiton (i.e., “Bibi’s newspaper”) have gone their separate ways. His last media bastion has fallen. He’s left with Shimon Riklin and Channel 20, whose ratings are below the level of statistical error, and where even the most devoted viewers feel uncomfortable at the displays of kowtowing and fawning to which they’re exposed from time to time.

Channel 20 is comic relief for people-in-the-know. Israel Hayom is Israel’s most widely read newspaper. Its impact on the country’s agenda was negligible, less than marginal, until recently, when it started to show signs of independence. In the spirit of the times, it can be said that it’s restored sovereignty to itself.

Skewed at home

Three members of the security cabinet, from three different parties, who attended several meetings of that forum this week, described Netanyahu to me in similar terms: “Calm, in control, not uptight, attentive, alert and functioning, even at 3 A.M.”

They believed his account that the removal of the metal detectors from the Temple Mount gates was not payment to King Abdullah in return for his agreement to allow the embassy staff and the security guard to return to Israel. “There are situations in which Bibi doesn’t lie,” they said in one way or another. “This time he told the truth. He arrived at the decision to remove the detectors before the incident in Amman. Somehow, the two things became intertwined.”

Within the sealed walls of the security cabinet room, Netanyahu conducts himself professionally, intelligently, responsibly, rationally. He’s been through many security crises, including in the Bermuda Triangle of the three religions in Jerusalem. His learning curve is good. Moreover, he’s cautious – some would say a coward by nature.

But when he gets home, to the fighting family, to sleepless nights, he goes off-kilter. He made the decision to install the metal detectors after the police recommended it and neither the Shin Bet security service nor the army objected. He gave the instruction and flew off to Europe. Just hours after he returned, last Thursday evening, with the situation roiling and Friday prayers around the corner, he convened the security cabinet to reconsider the arrangements at the Mount.

Israeli security forces take down security barriers at the Lions Gate, a main entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 24, 2017.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

As reported, the initial decision to leave the detectors in place was approved by a large majority. Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz voted against; they thought their installation was ineffective and probably harmful.

At that same meeting, which followed a few days of mounting tension on the Palestinian street and in Jordan, and a glut of intelligence reports and situation appraisals by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet, the heads of those two bodies, Gadi Eizenkot and Nadav Argaman, respectively, urged the immediate removal of the detectors. They painted a series of potential serious scenarios, both locally and in broader and more distant circles.

For his part, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said something to the effect of: It’ll be alright. We’ll get them used to it – the Palestinian worshipers will go through the detectors.

The problem with the police is their shortsightedness. They see the picture from the tip of their nose to the far end of their truncheons, at best. Alsheich came from the Shin Bet, which takes a far broader view, but he’s apparently forgotten what he learned there, while retaining what he wasn’t mean to learn. The ministers and Netanyahu preferred to base themselves on his expert opinion. It also served them politically.

That was not true, as we saw, in the case of Galant and Steinitz – the former, a retired major general who was at one stage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s military secretary; the latter, a former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a veteran member of the security cabinet.

“You’re wrong, they will not get used to it, and they won’t go through [the metal detectors],” Galant said in the meeting in the wee hours of Friday morning last week. “It’s a serious mistake to leave the detectors there. Let there be no doubt, I am one of you and bear responsibility for whatever decision is made here, but in my opinion, we need to remove them immediately. Every delay is detrimental.”

Galant’s reasoning was basically similar to that of the Shin Bet and the IDF. “The Arabs are using it against us, from the Palestinians to the Islamic Movement and Hamas,” he warned. “This is a ‘charger’ for terrorist energy that is liable to erupt at any moment, in different places as well” (a prophecy that, unfortunately, was fulfilled about 18 hours later, in Halamish).

“It’s also not practical,” Galant added. “It’s impossible to move tens of thousands of people through metal detectors when they’re in a oppositional frame of mind. This isn’t a closed hall in an airport. On the way to prayers on the Mount they will pass through alleys, shops, people. The opposition will be kindled.”

Galant continued, “Sooner or later we will take down the detectors and will be obliged to open the area. The more time that passes, the higher the price we will pay. We made a mistake when we installed them, but mistakes have to be corrected when they’re still small. The more time you let go by, the greater the loss of honor and the loss of deterrence that will be entailed in removing the detectors.”

The atmosphere in the security cabinet was very different. This was certainly the finest hour of the metal detectors; their popularity soared to new heights. Toward the end of the debate, the balance of forces was clear to everyone. Votes aren’t always taken in that forum. Galant demanded one and wanted minutes taken. After the vote – two against all the others present – he said, “The day will not be long in coming when we’ll have to take another vote on this decision.”

And so it was, word for word. The next day, last Friday, when the details of the cabinet meeting leaked and the views expressed by the IDF and the Shin Bet became known, those two bodies became the punching bag of the right wing. Every mother’s son smashed and bashed them, accused them of wimpishness, of surrendering Israel’s sovereignty. In short, leftists. Suddenly the police became the darling of the right wing, an object of veneration. Until they’re called upon to evacuate settlers from some new ghost outpost. When that happens, the cries of “Nazis” will reverberate across the rocky terraces, and we’ll read the trenchant tweets about the use of exaggerated force.

Moment of sanity

On Wednesday, just before the Knesset concluded its summer session, MK Benny Begin (Likud) took the podium. The debate was about a bill submitted by his party colleague MK David Amsalem to require some 1,500 police officers of various ranks to take periodic polygraph tests, “so they will safeguard themselves,” as Amsalem put it.

In the five minutes allotted to him, Begin chose to talk about a different subject: the controversial nation-state bill submitted by MK Avi Dichter (Likud). Let’s put it this way: Begin’s remarks were among the most lucid, honorable, morally upstanding and courageous uttered – certainly in this Knesset. A lesson in civics, a lesson in democracy, a lesson in Zionism. If only it were possible to reproduce the entire speech here. That being unfeasible, we’ll make do with selected excerpts:

“I generally refrain from giving grades to Zionists. In this case, though, I will: Fail! I do not support the nation-state bill [which was discussed that morning by a special parliamentary committee that was established in order to get around Begin’s decisive vote in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee], and I will not be able to support it

“I proposed a formulation of my own, which would state that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state that maintains full equality of rights for all its citizens. [The word “equality” is absent in Dichter’s text.] It’s a formulation that 90 MKs will support.

“[The existing formulation infringes on] the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty It downgrades its status. There is no contradiction between a person and nationality and human rights It is incumbent upon us to treat decently the other nationalities that live here with us The blow will be not only to the rights of the members of other nationalities, but to every minority

“We must not hide behind the non-redemptive expression ‘Jewish and democratic state’ – which appears in the wording of the bill – without filling it with content. Without equality, you get an empty framework, without spirit”

When Begin left the podium, almost every opposition MK who was present, particularly those from Zionist Union and Yesh Atid, came over to shake his hand. In Likud, no one so much as gave him a glance. They ignored him demonstratively, busied themselves with their phones, prattled with their neighbors, read the newspaper. What he’s still doing there, God only knows.

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