Ben-Gvir's Temple Mount jaunt a sign of new Israeli gov't pragmatism - analysis

The way the whole incident proceeded may provide an early indication of what to expect from this new government: a dose of pragmatism while implementing a hard-right ideology.

 Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during an event of the Chabad community, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 12, 2022.  (photo credit: ARIE LIEB ABRAMS/FLASH90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during an event of the Chabad community, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 12, 2022.
(photo credit: ARIE LIEB ABRAMS/FLASH90)

One phrase often heard when discussing Jews going up to the Temple Mount is that it is important to be smart, not right.

What “be smart, not right” means in this context is that while Jews have all the moral right in the world to visit their holiest site on the Temple Mount – though whether they have a right according to Halacha is a matter of dispute – to do so is unwise because it will be viewed as a provocation and lead to bloodshed.

People have all kinds of rights, this argument runs, but that does not mean they necessarily need to employ them.

Reasonable people can debate whether National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who over the years has earned through his actions a reputation as a right-wing provocateur, should have gone to the Temple Mount on Tuesday. But even his detractors must admit that the way he did it – in the early morning, without fanfare, after sending signals that he actually would not go through with the visit – was, well, at least smart.

What arguably was less smart was announcing beforehand his intention to visit, thus inviting threats and warnings from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others that such a visit would open the gates of hell and lead to a violent Mideast explosion. Once those threats were issued, it became clear that neither Ben-Gvir nor the government could back down.

 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)

By issuing threats, the terrorist organizations ensured the visit.

This is uncannily similar to what happened in 2021 during the first week of the newly installed government of Naftali Bennett.

The first test that then-prime minister Bennett and his public security minister, Omer Bar Lev, faced just two days after being sworn into office in June was whether to allow the annual Jerusalem Day flag march – postponed because of fighting in Gaza a few weeks earlier – to take place. The terrorist groups from Gaza, which in May of that year fired rockets on Jerusalem, promised a reprise if the march would be held.

The march went ahead – though the route did not go through the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City – and the day passed without significant incident. Bennett realized that to give in and cancel the march would set a dangerous precedent that would plague his government throughout its duration, and that it could not be seen as buckling under those types of threats.

Similar considerations were at play Monday in deliberations Ben-Gvir held with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of the police and security services. To prohibit Ben-Gvir, a senior cabinet minister, from going to the site – a site he has visited on numerous occasions in the past – because of Hamas threats would send precisely the wrong message just as the new government was starting out: that it could be intimidated.

So the decision was made to let the visit happen.

The next question, then, was how it should proceed.

Right-wing purists will argue that Ben-Gvir would have been entirely within his rights, as a Jew and as a government minister, to visit the site in the middle of the day and in the full glare of a phalanx of television cameras there to record the event, as Ariel Sharon did in September 2000.

But given the site’s sensitivity, the identity of the visitor and the fears in the region and around the world about the intentions of this new government, others argue that this most definitely would not have been the smartest way to go.

Those others, apparently, included Netanyahu.

Ben-Gvir made chose the smart option

So, as difficult as it may be for some to hear, this time when visiting the Temple Mount, Ben-Gvir chose the smart path.

He briefly toured the Temple Mount after sending clear signals following his meetings with Netanyahu and the security heads that the visit would not happen. The media picked up on those signals. The front-page lead headline in Maariv was: “Ben-Gvir postpones going up to the Temple Mount.” Yediot Aharonot headlined its story on this issue: “Ben-Gvir’s capitulation.”

Ben-Gvir was almost Ehud Barak-like in putting everyone off the scent (Barak was famous for fooling the enemy). The new national security minister went up to the site, walked around for some 13 minutes and left before anybody took notice. He made his point. He pleased his base. He asserted Jewish rights to the Temple Mount and demonstrated Israeli sovereignty there. But he did so in a way that was uncharacteristically low-key.

Immediate violence was averted. There was, however, diplomatic fallout: condemnations from Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for this provocative “storming” of al-Aqsa. Likewise, the US and numerous other countries expressed concern about a change to the status quo at the site.

The way the whole incident proceeded, however, may provide an early indication of what to expect from this new government: a dose of pragmatism while implementing a hard-right ideology.

That Ben-Gvir went up to the site in the early morning, with little fanfare and after hiding his true intentions, shows that he is not blind to what is happening around him. How he paid the visit indicates that he is aware of the signals such a visit sends and the dangers it could create.

Were he indeed the pyromaniac that some make him out to be, he would have announced the hour of his visit in advance and gone to the site in a bombastic fashion with television cameras blazing. Ben-Gvir knows how to poke his finger in someone’s eyes when he wants to.

Since the election on November 1, the argument has been made to those who have voiced deep concern about the far-right ideology of coalition partners Otzma Yehudit, the Religious Zionist Party and Noam that once these parties are in power, once Ben-Gvir and the RZP’s Bezalel Smotrich have ministerial responsibility, their offices will make them more pragmatic. It is one thing, this argument goes, to shout something in the opposition, but another to bear the responsibility of governing on your shoulders.

How Ben-Gvir went to the Temple Mount on Tuesday is an early indication of this dynamic at work. It is doubtful that the pre-ministerial Ben-Gvir would have been so low-key.

The episode also shows something about Netanyahu and the powers now at work on him inside the new government. In 2015, at the beginning of what is known as the “Knife Intifada,” Netanyahu forbade MKs and cabinet ministers from going to the Temple Mount because he did not want to exacerbate an already very tense situation.

Technically, he could have done the same thing this time as well. That he chose not to shows the leverage that the right-wing parties in the coalition have over him today – leverage they did not have in 2015.

What happened Tuesday is a taste of what to expect from this government going forward: pursuing a hard right-wing agenda, but doing so in a more low-key, pragmatic manner than what might have been expected.