Today, just about anyone can visit the Temple Mount, though only Muslims are allowed to pray at Judaism’s holiest site.
But there’s one group of 120 people who are barred from the Mount: members of Knesset.
In October 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed police to keep them away from the site, and the order has remained in effect ever since.
Lawmakers are expected to be allowed on the Temple Mount next week for a one-day trial. It’s unclear if this will mark the end of the ban, since there have been quite a few unfulfilled commitments to let MKs visit the site.
The average Israeli might shrug this off and wonder why MKs, who are supposed to be representing them and not just themselves, are making such a big deal about this. But whether one is for or against lawmakers visiting the Temple Mount, there are much broader implications relating to democracy, rule of law, and security.
The Temple Mount is an issue that, in a sense, unites the Joint List with the far Right, though either side would be loath to admit it.
MK Yehudah Glick along with others in the Likud and those in Bayit Yehudi, whose rabbis permit Jews going up to the Temple Mount, want to be able to visit the site, and Joint List MKs want to pray in the Aksa Mosque, and some have, using their relative anonymity to get past the police.
These MKs who want to visit the Temple Mount, call the ban a violation of their rights both as parliamentarians and as individuals. Those who say lawmakers should stay away, generally focus on security.
Freedom of religion is perhaps the most compelling individual-rights-based argument for allowing MKs back on the Mount.
Both Jewish and Muslim MKs want to be able to worship in a place that is holy for their religion. The Muslim lawmakers say that Netanyahu has no right to tell them where they can or cannot go to pray.
However, the Joint List MKs undermine their own argument by telling Jews where they can, or more importantly, cannot pray, since they tend to say that not only must the status quo be maintained in prohibiting Jewish prayer at the site – which they describe entirely as a mosque, not just the al-Aksa structure atop it – but that Jewish visits, which they say are settler provocations, should be stopped entirely.
Freedom of movement is another individual- rights point, but it’s a weaker one, since police are able to block people from entering places fairly often. It’s more of a question of whether this is an abuse of that power or not.
Then, there’s the parliamentary rights argument, which is really a constitutional one, of separation of powers.
MKs have parliamentary immunity, allowing them broad freedom of political speech and action without fear of reprisal or censorship. Should the executive branch of government, i.e., the prime minister, be allowed to disregard checks and balances and violate that immunity? Or is his ban on MK visits to the Temple Mount in fact his way of checking and balancing out the legislative branch? Glick has also questioned whether Netanyahu has the right to tell the police what to do, wondering if the prime minster could then tell them to stop investigating him for corruption.
The ban is obviously constitutionally questionable, though the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that people – including Glick specifically – can be kept away from the Temple Mount. Still, there is a pending Supreme Court lawsuit by Glick against the prime minister over the ban, and Netanyahu has a September 15 deadline to submit an explanation. Glick argues that next week’s one-day trial is an attempt by Netanyahu to say, “Look, I tried, and it went badly,” because having Jewish and Arab MKs go up demonstratively at the same time cannot turn out well.
Then there’s the main argument against politicians’ visits to the Temple Mount: security.
The MK ban was formulated as part of Netanyahu’s ongoing talks with Jordan about security on the Temple Mount, as the Jordanian Islamic Trust, known as the Wakf, administers the site, while Israeli police secure it.
The discussion of security on the Temple Mount often veers toward removing blame from the Israeli and Palestinian Muslims who riot in the area, three of whom murdered two policemen last month, starting another wave of Arab violence.
The canard that then-prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2000 sparked the Second Intifada continues to be repeated, even though senior Palestinian officials and Suha Arafat have said publicly that the wave of Palestinian violence was planned in advance.
The fact is that the “al-Aksa is in danger” lie has been an excuse for violence against Jews for almost a century – it led to the 1929 Hebron Massacre – and generally has little to do with anything Jews actually do. Leaders from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said Jews defile the Mount with their “filthy feet,” to Islamic Movement Northern Branch head Sheikh Raed Salah, who spread the blood libel that Jews plan to destroy al-Aksa, constantly incite based on the Temple Mount.
Still, MK ban defenders say, there’s the adage, “It’s better to be smart than right.”
Why give potential rioters any excuses they can use to restart violence? After the recent standoff on the Temple Mount, in which the government put up the metal detectors and surveillance cameras following the deadly shooting, and then took them down, and in light of his continued barring of MKs from the Mount, Netanyahu clearly is taking the side of caution over justice.
Next month, we’ll see which side the Supreme Court chooses.