Opinion |

With Jerusalem Poised to Explode, Israeli Far-right - and Adelson - Pour on Fresh Fuel

Casino magnate's newspaper gives center stage to prominent figure on the Israeli far-right, who urges rebuilding of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and relocation of the Muslim shrine of the gold-clad Dome of the Rock.

Bradley Burston
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Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street at Jerusalem's Old city outside the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, after Israel removed all security measures it had installed at the compound July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street at Jerusalem's Old city outside the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, after Israel removed all securitCredit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS
Bradley Burston

For days, Israeli security experts have warned that with tensions in Jerusalem at fever pitch, the central Friday prayers at the holy city's Al-Aqsa Mosque could spark violence that could lead to a new Palestinian uprising or even to war.

When the day dawned, a prominent figure on Israel's far-right, along with Sheldon Adelson's closely controlled and widely read Israel Hayom newspaper, poured fresh fuel on the simmering conflict.

The paper gave center stage to its interview with a prominent figure on the Israeli far-right, who urged the rebuilding of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and relocation of the Muslim shrine of the gold-clad Dome of the Rock, which along with Al-Aqsa is located on the compound where it is believed the Temple once stood.

One of the trigger issues of the crisis has been the allegation, advanced by militant Muslim clerics and others, that Israel intends to do harm to Al-Aqsa and the surrounding compound.

The hard-liner, former lawmaker and reserve IDF brigadier general Aryeh Eldad, also voiced strident criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership in the current crisis.

In the process, the newspaper gave one of the clearest indications yet of the billionaire casino mogul's apparent displeasure with Netanyahu, who until recently was the recipient of Adelson's unqualified and seemingly unlimited support.

"We will have no alternative but to change the status quo on the Temple Mount,' Eldad said, using the Jewish term for the compound, sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Metal detectors must be returned to its entrances, he said, adding that "as time goes on, we will build a synagogue, and after there is freedom of Jewish worship on the Mount, perhaps it will be possible to build the Temple."

Asked if that was the goal, Eldad replied, "I think the Temple should be built, yes. For the same reasons that [Zionist movement founder Theodor] Herzl wanted to build the Temple, as a a symbol of the return of Israel to its land, its homeland.

"We won't demolish the Dome of the Rock, which is a stunningly beautiful structure. After the [construction] tender, without back-room deals or cronies, we will move it, because the lot is already taken."

Asked who would build the Temple, Eldad answered, "Chinese people, apparently. Jews don't like to work in the sun."

Eldad had especially harsh words for Netanyahu's performance during the crisis, which has been raging for nearly two weeks and has spiraled into diplomatic tension with neighboring Jordan.

"If a weak nation like Jordan dictates to us how to behave in Israel's capital, this is a sign of the severe weakness of the prime minister. So was the surrender to the demands of the Waqf [the Islamic trust which administers the holy site], such that its forbidden for a Jew to even mumble a prayer in the holiest site of the Jewish people."

Eldad characterized as a "shameful surrender to Jordanian blackmail." Netanyahu's agreement to remove metal detectors from the site in exchange for the return of an Israeli embassy security guard who killed two Jordanians in an Amman apartment under disputed circumstances.

The crisis has been raging for two weeks, since three gunmen attacked Israeli Border Police guarding the Lion's Gate adjacent to the Al-Aqsa compound. The three gunmen, who were from an Arab Israeli town, and two of the Border Police, who were Druze, were killed in the exchange of fire. All were citizens of Israel.  Police then closed the compound and canceled Friday prayers for the first time in memory.

Two days later, Israel installed metal detectors at the entrances to the site, sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Muslim religious officials bridled at the move. Clashes ensued for days. Then, a week ago, a West Bank Palestinian entered the settlement of Halamish and brutally murdered a 70-year old Israeli and two of his adult children.

More bloodshed followed. Several Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. Sunday evening, in an Israeli embassy residence in Amman, a Jordanian worker attacked an Israeli security guard with a screwdriver. The guard opened fire, killing the worker and another Jordanian. Israel initially described the attack as terrorism, and Netanyahu's office distributed photos of the prime minister embracing the guard as a national hero. But several experts have called the guard's account into question, and the incident has strained crucial ties between the countries.

At the same time, Israel Hayom has been distancing itself from Netanyahu. It raised eyebrows Tuesday with a political cartoon appearing to equate the prime minister, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah in responsibility for the impasse over the crisis.

The next day, the paper shocked readers with a banner headline clearly critical of Netanyahu. "Netanyahu's demonstration of helplessness," read the front-page headline. The subheading called the government's actions in the crisis "feeble and frightened."

Eldad expanded on the theme in the Friday interview. Citing Netanyahu's response,  he said that "We're giving up on every shred of our sovereignty. Our indolence is driving me out of my mind."

Observers have speculated that in addition to rightward shots across the bow from the billionaire donor, Israel Hayom's new editorial line may also be an effort to distance the paper and Adelson from potential legal entanglements.

One of the many investigations which have shadowed the Netanyahu administration centers on the degree of involvement between Israel Hayom and the Prime Minister's Office. If it is determined that Adelson's paper was directly tied to Netanyahu's people, the tycoon's enormous investment in the free-of-charge daily - estimated to have lost $190 million over the past seven years - could be considered an illegal or improper campaign contribution to Netanyahu.

The investigation is also probing whether Netanyahu and Yediot Ahronot newspaper owner Arnon Mozes secretly considered striking a deal which would have benefited both, to the direct detriment of Adelson and Israel Hayom.

Breaking new ground in Israel Hayom, Eldad was unsparing in his view of corruption allegations against the prime minister. The alleged Mozes-Netanyahu discussion "smells like a classic political bribe," he said.

Eldad warned against ignoring suspicions that both Netanyahu and his wife Sara accepted expensive gifts from friends and supporters in violation of government guidelines and regulations.

"He who belittles accepting gifts from friends and associates, whether it be champagne or jewelry, is making a bitter mistake. They say, 'What, are we going to bring down a prime minister because of cigars?' In my view, if this is a matter of a criminal violation, certainly the answer is yes. These are the little things on which we must not hold back."