War cabinet split could get worse if Temple Mount flares up again

Growing divisions in Israel’s ruling forum do not bode well for dealing with traditional Ramadan flashpoint

February 22, 2024 12:10

We are now in the month of Adar, traditionally a time for joy and merriment in the lead-up to Purim festivities. But here in Jerusalem I am yet to see any sense of celebrations. The mood matches the seasonal weather — bleak, with large grey clouds of grief engulfing the whole of the country.

A paradox weighs heavily on the collective psyche: that Israeli society continues to exhibit impressive fortitude and resilience, while at the same time the hostages, the grieving families, the injured, the displaced, and the welfare of the soldiers dominate everyone’s thoughts.

Compounding this is the ongoing political imbroglio, illustrated this week by the latest example of growing discontent among members of the war cabinet. Currently the highest forum for decision-making, it is made up of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, plus Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer — all three from Likud — and Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot from the more centrist National Unity Party.

In a letter to his partners, made public this week, Eisenkot wrote that the war cabinet’s “absence of impactful and meaningful decisions” has led to “a gradually increasing difficulty in achieving the war’s objectives.

“The strategic framework for the war,” he continued, “is stuck and is threatening in practice the achievement of the war’s objectives and, even more so, the State of Israel’s strategic situation.”

In Eisenkot’s assessment, there have been partial achievements, but when it comes to “securing an end to the war in which no threat is posed to Israel from Gaza” or “improving citizens’ sense of personal security”, neither has been achieved. Coming not from a commentator but a current member of the inner sanctum, such stinging criticism is significant.

Beyond Eisenkot’s thinly-disguised criticism of the prime minister, there are numerous other divisions within this government. The next turf war will be over perhaps the most combustible issue of all: access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan, which is due to start around 10 March (depending on the moon). Among his recommendations, therefore, Eisenkot includes ”preventing an escalation in hostilities in Judea and Samaria with a view to Ramadan”.

It is not by chance that Hamas named their October 7 attack the “Flood of Al-Aqsa”, an attempt to create linkage to their aspirations regarding the Temple Mount. This has been a rallying call of extremist Islamic groups for more than a century now, and false rumours of Jews taking over the Temple Mount have been enough to launch pogroms.

The site’s ability to inspire a wider conflagration was seen as recently as 2021, when unprecedented violence in mixed Jewish and Arab cities threatened to become an even larger and more sinister clash. Indeed, it was then-rookie MK Itamar Ben-Gvir who stoked the fire, setting up a temporary parliamentary office in a tent in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

So far in the current conflict, despite having some success in stretching Israel’s focus to Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, Hamas have been thwarted in their hopes that their terror rampage would precipitate and galvanise other fronts too. This failed, certainly, among Israeli Arabs, who have not only refused to join the fray, but have reported record levels of national identification with Israel. And although there have been terror attacks emanating from the West Bank, we have not (yet) seen mass protests or the explosion Hamas was hoping to trigger there either.

Now along comes the oxymoronic Minister for Security Ben-Gvir, with his proposal to place a blanket ban on all Arabs entering the Temple Mount compound, so as not to allow Hamas supporters a celebration and victory picture at the holy site. Despite being cut out of war-related decision-making, by dint of his ministerial role Ben Gvir is responsible for security on the Mount and the police overall. Facing off against him on this issue are the other arms of the security establishment.

Ben-Gvir has crudely argued that Muslims should not be granted access while other Muslims are still holding Jews hostage. Moreover, he says, their attack was deliberately launched on a Jewish festival (Simchat Torah), so why should he be benevolent on theirs? A second potentially incendiary aspect is that Ben-Gvir is well-known for his propensity to visit the Temple Mount himself. While within his rights according to the status quo agreement, since becoming minister he has so far acceded to the prime minister’s request to tone down the overt public nature of his visits, doing so seldom, briefly and under the radar. Will this pattern continue?

Opposing Ben-Gvir’s policy position are the heads of the other military and security services, notably the army and the Shin Bet internal security agency, who favour limitations based on intelligence and against known troublemakers instead of a discriminatory blanket ban. Another tool deployed in the past is to impose limitations according to age to prevent hot-headed young men from triggering violent disturbances.

This approach may well be deployed when it comes to West Bank Palestinians’ access. In more peaceful times, the Jerusalem municipality has laid on buses to facilitate access for tens of thousands of West Bankers. This year, that is unlikely. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General has already warned that a blanket ban on Israeli Arabs — who are, of course, full Israeli citizens — would be against the law.

As ever, it will be for the prime minister to navigate between Ben-Gvir and the advice of the professional security establishment. On Tuesday night President Isaac Herzog felt it necessary to wade in. He reiterated that for “our Muslim brothers and sisters … Israel has always maintained, and will always maintain, freedom of worship … in all religious sites and definitely on Temple Mount.”

Eisenkot and Ben-Gvir could not be more different: Eisenkot is a strategic thinker, Ben-Gvir a populist rabble-rouser. Eisenkot spent a career in uniform, Ben-Gvir was too radical to even be drafted. Eisenkot is tactile and operates behind the scenes, Ben-Gvir rose to prominence as a loudmouth lawyer. Eisenkot is modest, Ben-Gvir is boastful. Eisenkot is in mourning for his son, killed on active service in Gaza, Ben-Gvir is goading and grandstanding. Eisenkot lives by the sea, Ben-Gvir in the hills. In their contradiction, they represent the requisite balance for a Netanyahu government. But how long can it last?

Richard Pater is chief executive of Bicom, and a political analyst based in Jerusalem

February 22, 2024 12:10

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