Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir is "feared around the world," President Isaac Herzog said on Wednesday during a meeting with representatives of the Shas Party. Herzog made the comment when he thought that the microphones were off.
Herzog met with Shas as part of the consultations he held with all parties before deciding who to give the mandate to form the next coalition.
"There's one topic I didn't raise because I did not want to launder anyone," said Herzog. "You will have a problem with the Temple Mount. This is a critical issue. You have a partner who all the world around us is fearful of. I also told him this between us. Really this is not for publication. I don't want to make trouble, but I think you have a responsibility."
A Shas representative could be heard in the recording stating "he mellowed out, in our opinion."
The President's Office responded to the leaked recording later in the evening, stating that Herzog told the Shas representatives of concerns about Ben-Gvir's positions on certain topics.
The office added that Herzog spoke with Ben-Gvir about these concerns last Thursday.
Leaders in the West and in the Middle East have reportedly expressed concerns at Ben-Gvir's likely inclusion in the next coalition, warning that they would restrict cooperation with any ministry led by the far-right politician and his party members.
The Biden administration is said to be considering a policy of not speaking to the Otzma Yehudit leader. Before the election, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told Netanyahu that extremist ministers would damage the US-Israel relationship. Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed reportedly relayed a similar message to Netanyahu.
Ben-Gvir responded to the comments on Wednesday evening, stating "President Isaac Herzog and I have had many fruitful conversations in recent weeks. More than once the president pointed out to me that the close familiarity with my views and plans has managed to sway hundreds of thousands in Israel and that he is confident that if I speak to the world they will understand and recognize that I am not generalizing all Arabs."
"By the way, following the talks with the president, I started meeting with diplomats and will work to explain Otzma Yehudit's positions to the entire world," added the MK.
Sephardi chief rabbi on Ben-Gvir: Stay away from him
In June, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, a spiritual leader for the Shas party, advised people to "stay away" from Ben-Gvir due to the MK's visits to the Temple Mount.
"'Here Rabbi So-and-So permitted entering the Temple Mount. What – is he not a rabbi?' Fool," said Yosef. "Is everyone called 'Gadol b'Torah' [a great rabbi]? Those who are Gedolei Torah are those who guide us. Who forbade entrance to the Temple Mount? All the Gedolei Torah."
"There's one called Ben-Gvir. He enters the Temple Mount boldly – what a 'chilul Hashem' [desecration of God's name], to go out against all the real 'Gedolei Yisrael' [great ones of Israel]," he said.
"Pay attention – think for a second. Fool – is this like your rabbi or all these other rabbis? This is all the [great rabbis]: dozens and dozens of rabbis," Yosef said. "When I entered the chief rabbinate, one of the things we did, together with my colleague [Ashkenazi Chief] Rabbi [Meir] Lau, [was that] I had all the rabbis in the Land of Israel, from all the sectors - also religious Zionists - sign that it is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount... They signed – over 100 rabbis."
"This MK comes, goes up to the Temple Mount, stirs things up, and also transgresses every order of [the great ones of Israel]," lamented the chief rabbi. "'Oy va'avoy!' (Woe are we!). You need to distance yourself from these things, to keep your distance from him and from all those who lead him. What kind of leaders are these?"
Visits to the Temple Mount hotly debated by Jewish leaders
Whether or not entrance to the Temple Mount is permitted is heavily debated among rabbis, especially in the Religious Zionist sphere.
While many rabbis, such as Shlomo Goren, Haim Drukman, Dov Lior, Eliezer Melamed and Yisrael Rozen, among others, support entering the site while following the strictures of Jewish law, many others forbid doing so – and the official position of Israel's Chief Rabbinate is that entrance to the site is forbidden.
A sign placed by the Chief Rabbinate at the entrance used by Jews reads "According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site."
According to halachah (Jewish law), those visiting the Temple Mount complex must immerse in a mikvah (ritual Jewish bath) before entering the site and those entering the site cannot wear leather shoes. Due to its sanctity, certain parts of the site are forbidden for entry according to Jewish law, even after immersing in a mikvah. The penalty for entering such areas is kareth – excision.
Jews who do visit the site are accompanied by both Israel Police and a representative of the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, who assure that they follow police regulations which ban worship and religious or Israeli national symbolism. Despite the regulations, limited Jewish worship has been allowed at the site in recent years.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.