The Biden administration slammed as “unacceptable” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount visit on Tuesday morning, which sparked global condemnation and created immediate friction between Israel’s new government and the US.
“The United States stands firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo. They are unacceptable,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
"The United States stands firmly for the preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo, they are unacceptable."Ned Price
He underscored that the Biden administration expected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to preserve that status quo.
“We took note of the fact that Netanyahu’s governing platform calls for the preservation of the historic status quo with relation to the holy places. We expect him to follow through with that commitment... in word and in practice, that is what we will be watching for,” Price said.
Price said US officials had spoken Tuesday to their Israeli counterparts in the new government, including the Prime Minister’s Office, and that the substance was similar to what he relayed to reporters.
US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have repeatedly “underscored the need to preserve that historic status quo at the al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount,” Price said.
“We will be quite clear in opposing any unilateral steps that set back the prospects for a two-state solution further back,” Price said, adding that this also includes de-escalating tension and avoiding steps that exacerbate violence.
In New York, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority pushed for a UN Security Council meeting on the matter.
The international crisis came just five days after Netanyahu’s far-right government was sworn into office.
Netanyahu: Israel did not violate Temple Mount status quo
The Prime Minister’s Office said, “Netanyahu is committed to strictly maintaining the status quo,” as it rejected a Hamas warning from the previous day that Ben-Gvir’s visit would be considered an act of war.
“We will not be dictated to by Hamas. Under the status quo, ministers have gone up to the Temple Mount in recent years, including public security minister Gilad Erdan. Therefore, the claim that a change has been made in the status quo is without foundation,” Netanyahu’s office said.
Israeli Ambassador to Jordan Eitan Sorkis repeated a similar statement to the Foreign Ministry in Amman when he was summoned there on Tuesday so the Hashemite Kingdom could convey its outrage.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted that Ben-Gvir’s visit constituted a “dangerous provocative act. We condemn it and warn against consequences of all illegal Israeli measures that are undermining peace prospects [and] can only cause more conflict, violence. [The status quo] at holy sites must be respected.”
The Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism, is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and is the third holiest site in Islam.
Jordan has a special custodial relationship to the site. A status quo arrangement is in place through which anyone – including Israelis – can visit the site but only Muslims can worship there.
Ben-Gvir, along with many members of Netanyahu’s new government, believes the status quo should be changed so that Jews can worship at the site.
Netanyahu has insisted he will not allow for Jewish worship and that Ben-Gvir’s visit was in keeping with the status quo. The two men met on Monday night, with Ben-Gvir explaining that he planned to visit in the morning. The Likud confirmed that following consultations with security establishment officials, Netanyahu did not object to Ben-Gvir’s trip.
Erdan, who is now Israel’s ambassador to the UN in New York, tweeted a photograph of himself on the Temple Mount from his time as public security minister.
“Israel has maintained the status quo for many years, even though it discriminates against Jews [and] Christians who can only visit, not pray. Anyone who says differently jeopardizes security [and] stability,” he said.
The diplomatic storm comes as Netanyahu has spoken of expanding the circle of Israel’s six regional allies to include other countries such as Saudi Arabia.
He is also scheduled to make a formal visit to the United Arab Emirates, for what would be his first trip outside of Israel as new prime minister to meet with the ruler of the Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It would have been Netanyahu’s first public visit to the Gulf state.
Channel 12, which had stated the visit would take place next week, reported on Tuesday that those ceremonies were postponed due to Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount visit. Netanyahu’s spokesman rejected the report and said the visit had been delayed for technical and security reasons.
The UAE condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit, reiterating “the need to provide full protection for al-Aqsa Mosque and halt serious and provocative violations taking place there.” It called on Israel “to assume responsibility for reducing escalation and instability in the region.”
Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey and Qatar also issued condemnations, as did France and Great Britain and the EU.
Former prime minister Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid Party and now leads the opposition, tweeted, “This is what happens when a weak prime minister is forced to entrust the most irresponsible man in the Middle East to the most explosive place in the Middle East.”
He later added, “To quarrel with half the world just so that Ben-Gvir will spend 13 minutes on the Temple Mount is politically irresponsible.”
“Jews will also go up to the Temple Mount, and those who threaten us must be dealt with by an iron fist.”Itamar Ben-Gvir
Ben-Gvir did not back down from his conviction that it was important to express Israeli sovereignty over Judaism’s holiest site.
“Our government will not cave to threats by Hamas. The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel. We maintain the freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians and Jews,” he said. The government of which he was a member would not have a racist policy that prevented Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, Ben-Gvir said.
“Jews will also go up to the Temple Mount, and those who threaten us must be dealt with by an iron fist.”
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.•