Why Ben-Gvir's Explosive Visit Is Really Aimed At Netanyahu
Less than a week after being sworn in for the sixth time as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was defied by a highly charged visit his far-right coalition ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir, made to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, that has enflamed the entire Muslim world. Netanyahu has a choice to make.
PARIS — Pick an arsonist to head the fire department and you’re sure to have blazes to fight. That's exactly what is happening in Israel right now, since far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir was installed as Minister of National Security.
It didn't take more than a week for the new minister, who had been convicted in the past for incitement to racial hatred, to do what his Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wish he hadn't: to make a visit to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque compound (a.k.a. Esplanade of the Mosques, or Temple Mount), the third holy site of Islam, and one of the most sensitive spots on the planet.
Ben-Gvir has a clear objective: He wants to challenge the status quo, which exists since 1967, that bans Jews from praying on the esplanade, on which stood their Holy Temple, some 2,000 years ago.
Tuesday morning, this high-security ride plunged Israel into a diplomatic storm that Netanyahu would have well done without.
Opposition at home and abroad
Itamar Ben Gvir acted as if he was only defying the Islamists of Hamas who had warned him not to. The truth is, almost everyone was against this visit.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is responsible for managing the Esplanade of the Mosques, summoned the Israeli ambassador Tuesday to criticize what had happened. The United Arab Emirates, which recently established diplomatic relations with Israel, also denounced the visit; same for Saudi Arabia, which maintains official relations with Israel.
Even Israel’s traditional protector, the United States, called the attempt to change Israel’s status quo “unacceptable.” It is clear that Washington does not want to see another crisis erupt in the Middle East — in a global context that is already explosive.
Complicit or hostage?
Americans can remember that Netanyahu stated that he wouldn’t let Ben-Gvir change Jerusalem’s status quo, as he explained: “I know it would set fire to the Middle East and set billions of Muslims against us.” And that was back in 2020.
Since then, Netanyahu realized that he couldn’t win his fifth legislative elections in four years without the support of Ben-Gvir’s far-right party, Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Strength").
The prime minister will have to decide if he’s complicit with or simply hostage to the extremists.
The al-Aqsa Mosque compound issue thus becomes the question that will test the new coalition: Netanyahu has concluded a Faustian pact with extremist forces, who have no intention of playing the role of extras in his new government.
That also included a parliament member from Ben-Gvir’s party declaring on Sunday that the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel was “final.” That would be a clear annexation, even though it is not being called one — and would definitively bury the idea of having two States, Israel and Palestine, that would stand side by side.
Netanyahu thus created a coalition that goes further than anything he had ever dared to do, and which would change Israel’s nature. The prime minister will soon have to decide if he’s complicit with or simply hostage to the extremists who've just taken over in Israel. This subtle difference may very well determine how long his coalition can survive.
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