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Walking a Tightrope: Netanyahu May Have Taken a Calculated Risk in Allowing Ben-Gvir’s Early Morning Temple Mount Visit

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount compound early Tuesday morning, despite Israeli media reports on Monday that said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had asked him to postpone the visit. The element of surprise allowed the visit to conclude without sparking violence.

Ben-Gvir’s spokesperson, Eli Feldstein, told The Media Line that reports of Netanyahu’s request to postpone the visit were untrue and that the visit had been coordinated with the prime minister. The Media Line reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Likud party for comments; both declined to either confirm or deny the allegations.

All this could be a tactical decision on Netanyahu’s part, according to Professor Yitzhak Reiter, president of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel, former deputy adviser on Arab affairs to three Israeli prime ministers, and lecturer at Reichman University and Al-Qasemi College. Reiter told The Media Line that it would allow Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s coalition partner, to fulfill a promise to his voters while avoiding it becoming a trigger to confrontations with the Palestinians, which would lead to friction with Israel’s current and potential Arab allies.

Netanyahu, he said, is interested in expanding relations between Israel and Arab countries and is hoping to reach an accord with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, “he is not interested in Ben-Gvir or any other member of the government provoking a situation on the Temple Mount in a way that would undermine his ability to reach out for peace,” Reiter said.

But Netanyahu is in a complex position.

On the one hand, Reiter noted, Ben-Gvir’s actions regarding the Temple Mount could jeopardize Netanyahu’s intentions to reach peace agreements with additional Arab nations. On the other hand, Netanyahu needs Ben-Gvir as a political partner for his government. “I believe that he [Netanyahu] is walking a tightrope between his own agenda and Ben-Gvir’s agenda,” he said.

Reiter does not believe that Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount without Netanyahu’s prior consent. “I believe that they agreed on a tactical step, meaning that they will mislead the public by saying that Ben-Gvir postponed his visit, and then come in a surprise visit to the Temple Mount early in the morning, before regular visiting hours,” he said, noting that visiting hours start at 7:30 am, and Ben-Gvir arrived at the compound before that for a 15-minute visit.

Reiter says that then-Opposition Leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 is often considered a precedent used to learn lessons.

Sharon, Reiter said, announced his visit in advance. By the time he arrived, “there was a huge protest. The following day, the protests continued, and as a result of the confrontation with the police, four Palestinians were shot dead,” he said, adding that it was a trigger for the Second Intifada and made Al-Aqsa Mosque a symbol of that intifada.

Reiter believes that none of the Israeli authorities is interested in triggering such an event. “That is why they did it tactically, in a way that could prevent such a protest,” he said.

Dr. Toby Greene, a lecturer in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line that everyone was aware of the sensitivity of the Temple Mount and the risk that tensions there could trigger a chain of events with unpredictable and dangerous consequences.

He added that the new Israeli government is under international scrutiny right now, days after it was sworn in. “Western and regional leaders look to see how its extremist members will act, now that they are in power,” he said. Therefore, Ben-Gvir’s policies could jeopardize Netanyahu’s desire to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and his plan to boost cooperation with Israel’s Arab partners in peace, he explained.

Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have all condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount.

The Saudi statement said, “The Foreign Ministry expresses the condemnation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the provocative action by an Israeli official who stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.”

The Jordanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “Jordan condemns in the severest of terms the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque and violation of its sanctity.”

The UAE statement said, “The UAE today strongly condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard by an Israeli minister under the protection of Israeli forces.”

Netanyahu may have wished to avoid Ben-Gvir’s visit altogether. However, it is likely that due to the nature of Netanyahu’s coalition, he had no choice, said Greene. “The negotiation of the coalition agreements demonstrated that Netanyahu’s coalition partners have very strong leverage over the prime minister,” he said, adding that Netanyahu has no alternative coalition and is depending on the support of these partners to avoid a criminal conviction that would end his premiership and potentially send him to jail.

Greene added that Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir have different agendas.

Netanyahu’s objective, he said, appears to be to remain in office at all costs while Ben-Gvir’s objective “appears to be to position himself as a future replacement for Netanyahu as prime minister, and so far, he is continuing with the same political approach which has served him so well in recent years.”

Reiter clarified that the visit of Ben-Gvir itself does not change the status quo on the Temple Mount, because visitation hours do exist. “Ben-Gvir’s visit is alarming everybody because of his agenda and the agenda of all of the Temple groups, which is to construct a synagogue on the Temple Mount,” he added.

“The visit is provoking reactions because of its symbolic meaning and the political agenda behind it,” he said, adding that it is interpreted as official governmental support for the extreme Jewish organizations’ agenda to take over or divide the Temple Mount.

However, he does not believe that Netanyahu will allow that to happen. “I don’t think that Netanyahu will do it. I think everybody understands that such an act would create instability in the region and instability with the Palestinians that would spill over to Jordan, which is a strategic ally of Israel,” he said.