Israel's excavation work at the Mughrabi Gate outside of the Temple Mount will continue, the cabinet decided Sunday at a meeting during which the rift between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz continued to expand. The decision to continue with the work came despite violence at the Temple Mount over the weekend, and amid a chorus of furious protests over the last week from all corners of the Muslim world.
Work at Mughrabi Gate to continue
Intimidation tactics (Feb. 9 editorial)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that a cardinal issue was at stake, and that if Israel allowed Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas, and Raed Salah, one of the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel, decide what Israel could do 20 meters from the Western Wall, then they would next dictate what Israel could do at the Jaffa Gate and then at the Mamilla Quarter outside the walls of the Old City. Mashaal and Salah have been shrill in their opposition to the excavations.
"We are talking about an area that is not in any way connected to any Muslim holy place," Olmert said of the work to prepare a bridge that will allow access to the Temple Mount from the Western Wall Plaza. He stressed that the work, which is open for everyone to see, was taking place outside of the Temple Mount compound where the Aksa Mosque is situated.
"This is not a religious issue and shouldn't be turned into one," he said.
Olmert presented the cabinet with a chronology of the decision-making process involved in okaying work at the site, going back to when the original ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate was washed away in heavy rainfall in February 2004.
This chronology of events, which also included details of when the decision to conduct work at the site was made and who informed the Defense Ministry, was directed at Peretz, who wrote a letter leaked to the media soon after it was sent to Olmert last week saying that the defense minister was opposed to the decision to undertake the work.
The letter, which Peretz on Sunday denied he leaked, called on Olmert to stop the work because of a fear that it would escalate tensions with the Arab world. The letter also included an opinion by Gen, (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the political-military bureau at the Defense Ministry, who said it would only inflame Moslem passions. He also said he was concerned that the work was not coordinated with Jordan.
According to senior government officials, there was not one relevant player who was not informed about the work - including the moderate Arab countries, Jordan and the US. He also said the Wakf was informed of the plans. He pointed out, however, that since the work was taking place outside the Temple Mount compound, the Wakf's consent was not needed.
A number of ministers pounced on Peretz for his letter, saying it gave ammunition to those attacking Israel over construction of the bridge. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter was galled that Peretz said in the letter that he was not aware of when the work at the site was to begin.
Dichter said that he held a meeting in his office on January 21 that included all the representative bodies, including the IDF, and that another meeting was held at the beginning of February in Peretz's office during which the police representative discussed the target date to begin work.
Olmert told the cabinet that Peretz had all the relevant assessments from the various bodies that were consulted on the matter, including the Shin Bet (Israel's Security Agency) and the Mossad. Olmert said he was surprised to see Peretz's letter in the media, and that they spoke twice that night and Peretz could have brought the issue up then.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said that the situation between Olmert and Peretz was getting out of hand, and that the country needed there to be a good working relationship between the prime minister and his defense minister.
"The prime minister and defense minister need to speak to each other," Mofaz said. He said that the lack of communication gave fuel to Israel's enemies, and "is a recipe for crisis in other very sensitive areas."
Olmert responded by downplaying the tensions with Peretz, and - taking a jab at Mofaz and periods of tension he had as defense minister with former prime minister Ariel Sharon - said that his relationship with Peretz was better than the relationship between the prime minister and the defense minister "during other periods."
Peretz said that the work at the site was Israel's right, and that no one questioned that. But, he said, there were times when Israel had a right to act but decided to demonstrate restraint. "We never saw restraint as an act of weakness, but rather the opposite," he said.
"I think there are moderate elements among Israeli Arabs who we need to mobilize to calm down the situation and to reach an understanding to carry out the work urgently," he said. "I think we can turn this crisis into a stimulus to strengthen the moderates and isolate the extremists."
Labor Minister-without-Portfolio Ghaleb Majadle, the country's first Arab minister who was attending his second cabinet meeting, described a situation whereby the extreme voices in the Israeli Arab sector were on the rise because since 1995 succeeding governments have not dealt with the problems facing the Israeli Arab community, including poverty, inequitable distribution of education resources, and runaway unemployment.
Olmert said that that while Israel should do more to strengthen the moderates among the Israeli Arabs, Salah "is working according to other criteria, and that if his vision materializes, the State of Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish democratic state."
Olmert warned that if Salah did not work within the law, the law would deal with him. Salah, who was banned from Jerusalem's Old City on Wednesday after scuffling with police over the excavations, warned at a Nazareth rally on Friday of fierce retaliation if the mosques on the Temple Mount were harmed during the archeological dig. "You are playing with fire, and whoever plays with fire will ultimately get burned," he said.
Olmert said that Israel expected the reactions of the last few days, and that the government acted in accordance with security assessments that determined that for a variety of reasons this was the best time to carry out the work.
Among these reasons were Hamas's weakness and the internal Palestinian squabbles. Olmert also pointed out during the cabinet meeting that the Mughrabi gate not only served Jews and tourists, but it was also the only entrance into the Temple Mount that did not pass through an Arab neighborhood.
The cabinet decision passed easily, with only Peretz, Majadle and Education Minister Yuli Tamir abstaining.
The cabinet decision calls for work on the site to continue as quickly as possible, and that if an additional planning permit is necessary, work to obtain this should also be done rapidly. Attorney- General Menahem Mazuz is to decide by Monday whether the permit provided by the Jerusalem Municipality for the work to begin was enough, or whether a more detailed permit needed to be obtained.
According to the cabinet decision, the Foreign Ministry will continue to deal with the diplomatic aspects of the issue; the work will be coordinated with international players while preserving complete transparency of what is taking place on the ground; Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ya'akov Edri will be responsible for over-all coordination of the issue; and the hasbara aspects of the issue will be coordinated with Olmert's media adviser Ya'akov Galanti.
Meanwhile, Labor MKs responded to the debate by saying they feared Olmert would use this most recent clash with Peretz to remove him from the Defense Ministry and offer him the Social Affairs Ministry instead.
"We are fearing that the reason that Olmert has pushed off making a decision on the cabinet reshuffle is to wait until Peretz is in a bad position - and then force him out of the Defense Ministry," said one high-ranking Labor official. "It would be a disaster for Peretz in the primaries."
Peretz, meanwhile, continued to deny that his relationship with Olmert was shaky, and said that the cabinet meeting had been a "healthy debate."
MKs from the left-wing and Arab parties continued to criticize the government's decision to continue the construction, calling it an "unnecessarily inflammatory" move.
Hadash Chairman MK Muhammad Barakei condemned the decision of the "dense government." "It's no wonder that such a dense government makes such dense decisions," said Barakei. "This decision is in line with the criminal policy of Olmert, Peretz and [Avigdor] Lieberman, who insist on turning their back on every democratic possibility." Meretz also criticized the decision, and called on the government to hold talks with Moslem leaders to try and find a peaceful compromise to stop the violence.
The Knesset's Committee on the Interior and the Environment will discuss the excavation work on Monday along with police and security officials.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report