Ben-Gvir's Temple Mount visit and Netanyahu's political gamble - analysis

Only one terror attack will prove fodder for the opposition to make a convincing case that Ben-Gvir was indeed dragging Netanyahu into chaos.

 MK Itamar Ben-Gvir visits the Temple Mount, in May. (photo credit: Sinan Abu Mayzer/Reuters)
MK Itamar Ben-Gvir visits the Temple Mount, in May.
(photo credit: Sinan Abu Mayzer/Reuters)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Tuesday morning visit to the Temple Mount was a political gamble that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little choice but to take as well.

Ben-Gvir put Netanyahu in a pickle. The national security minister would have likely visited the site even if Netanyahu had requested of him not to. Therefore, on the one hand, Netanyahu risked appearing weak, but on the other hand, he did not want to encourage Ben-Gvir to visit so as not to be blamed for the consequences.

Hence, the tepid language in the Likud statement following a meeting between the two on Monday night: “After consulting with security officials, Netanyahu did not request that Ben-Gvir not visit the site.”

However, two reports by Channel 12’s Amit Segal, if true, indicate that Netanyahu realized the potential political benefit in Ben-Gvir’s visit, and he was willing to make a gamble as well.

The political benefits of Ben-Gvir's Temple Mount pilgrimage

First, the duo reportedly actually agreed in the meeting that Ben-Gvir would visit on Tuesday, and second, they agreed to keep this secret and intentionally lead many to believe that the visit would happen in next week, or even in a few weeks, and not the first thing the next day.

 National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir on Temple Mount on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 (credit: PUBLIC SECURITY MINISTRY) National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir on Temple Mount on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 (credit: PUBLIC SECURITY MINISTRY)

Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu both realized after the opposition’s criticism on Sunday and Monday over the planned visit – including opposition leader Yair Lapid warning that “people will die” – that if the visit did not end up provoking a response from Palestinians in the West Bank or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it would prove the doomsayers wrong and makes them look bad. It would also strengthen the idea of “showing who is boss” and indicates a new, tougher policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

The question they faced, however, was what would happen if there was a response.

Netanyahu gambling on security issues

One siren in the Gaza periphery, or one terrorist attack directly linked to the visit, could prove fodder for the opposition to make a convincing case that Ben-Gvir was indeed dragging Netanyahu into chaos.

This sort of political gamble is typical of Ben-Gvir but not of Netanyahu, who is notoriously cautious on security issues.

But as Netanyahu showed throughout the coalition negotiations over the past two months, he did not have much of a choice but to go along with his controversial partner, as he has no other realistic government. He was, and likely will continue to be, willing to sacrifice quite a lot to maintain power.

No violence was recorded as a result of the visit, as of Tuesday afternoon. But the act led to a relatively harsh diplomatic response that included a slew of condemnations. A statement from Netanyahu on Tuesday afternoon indicated that he realized he was paying a price.

The statement by a “source from Netanyahu’s office” said the government would “not surrender to Hamas’s dictates,” and as part of the status quo, several cabinet ministers have visited the site in the past, including former public security minister Gilad Erdan. “Therefore, the claim that there is a change to the status quo is baseless,” the source said.

That Netanyahu put out a statement in the name of a “source” indicates he is trying to distance himself from the event. In addition, the statement merely marked the incident as “not surrendering to Hamas,” without framing it as a victory over the terrorist organization and without taking a snub at Lapid. Finally, the pressure was strong enough that Netanyahu felt the need to emphasize that there was no change to the status quo.

The Ben-Gvir-style political gamble indeed did not pan out as a win for Netanyahu, who is trying to play down the issue. Ben-Gvir, however, will likely play it up as much as he can to prove that his approach was the correct one and win some public brownie points.

Netanyahu will need to clean up the diplomatic mess, and with Ben-Gvir saying he intends to keep on visiting the site, this could likely turn into a headache for the old-new prime minister.