The Israeli prime minister casts blame on Arab MKs and long-dead clerics but won’t talk about the messianic incitement coming from his own government. And forget about a discussion on the occupation’s role in inciting violence.
Member of Knesset Basel Ghattas entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on Monday in direct contradiction of instructions from Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister barred all MKs from entering the compound earlier this month in hopes of preventing provocations that are fanning the flames of violence that swept through Israel and Palestine over the past month.
The provocations Netanyahu was hoping to prevent, however, were not those made by Palestinian members of Knesset. With all due respect to Mr. Ghattas, he is far from a household name among either Israelis or Palestinians, and he does not hold enough sway to influence or provoke anything significant enough that might demand the prime minister’s attention.
The provocations Israel’s prime minister was hoping to prevent when he barred lawmakers from ascending the holy esplanade are those being made by ministers and officials in his own government. In one such provocation just this week, which Netanyahu wasn’t able to prevent, was when his own acting foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, said in a television interview that she dreams of seeing the Israeli flag fly over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, calling the site the “center of Israeli sovereignty.”
Hotovely’s statement followed weeks upon weeks in which Netanyahu reassured the world that his government has no desire or plans to alter the fragile status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque. In response, the prime minister was forced to release a late-night statement reassuring that the government’s policy has not changed, and that he “expects all members of the Government to act accordingly.” He did not mention Hotovely by name. He did not suggest she might be reprimanded, let alone dismissed from her position overseeing Israel’s foreign relations.
In comparison, Netanyahu reprimanded MK Ghattas by name and accusing him of seeking solely to “inflame the situation” by visiting Al-Aqsa. This will probably piss off a few people: Basel Ghattas probably did, as Netanyahu accused him, set out to create a provocation or at least score a few headlines Wednesday morning.
According to the “status quo,” the arrangements and power-sharing agreements that have been in place on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for nearly 50 years, there shouldn’t be any problem with Ghattas doing what he did Wednesday. His provocation was directed at Netanyahu, whose successive governments have repeatedly limited Muslims’ access to the Aqsa Mosque in recent years. It was directed at Netanyahu’s ministers and members of his party who publicly support shattering that “status quo” in ways as eclectic as demanding Jewish prayer in the compound to drawing up plans for building a “Third Temple” on top of it.
If the prime minister’s priority was truly to extinguish or prevent the ignition of Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem in general, one might question his choices over the past few years. For instance, he might have thought twice about appointing Tzipi Hotovely to the top post in the Foreign Ministry after watching this video of her from last year, in which she stands on the Temple Mount, in front of the Dome of the Rock, and declares: “We must change the status quo. The Temple Mount must go back to being a place for Jewish prayer.”
Or maybe he would have reconsidered allowing Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who discusses building a “Third Temple” on top of Al-Aqsa, into his government. Two years ago Ariel, who was construction minister at the time, told an archeological conference held in an illegal settlement: “We’ve built many little, little temples. But we need to build a real Temple on the Temple Mount.”
If assuaging Muslim fears over Israeli plans to change the “status quo” on the Temple Mount was really Netanyahu’s top priority, he might have said something critical about Culture Minister Miri Regev, who last year attended a conference entitled “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount,” outside which “Temple Mount Faithful” founder Yehuda Glick (himself a Knesset candidate on the Likud slate) was shot and nearly killed. Also in attendance at the conference were then-Likud MK Moshe Feiglin and Yehuda Etzion, who was convicted of plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
Benjamin Netanyahu knows very well how problematic the cast of characters that comprise his government are. He also knows he has no other choice but to keep them at his side. They are not only his political partners: they represent his political base. So because he can’t get rid of them, the only thing left to do is deflect attention with accusations of incitement — incitement by Arab members of Knesset, Palestinian leaders who have little and waning influence over the current violence, religious leaders who have been dead for over 40 years, and even neo-Ottoman autocrats.
Nothing about the members of Netanyahu’s own government who dream — out loud — of flying an Israeli flag over one of Islam’s holiest sites or building messianic temples on its ruins. Nothing about the occupation, which Netanyahu just admitted — again — isn’t going to end anytime soon. (He also said it here, here and here.) Nothing about why most of the violence in recent weeks is taking place in Jerusalem and Hebron, the only two cities that have Jewish settlers inside Palestinian neighborhoods. Nothing.
There is no justification for violence against civilians — ever. Not when it is perpetrated by democratically elected governments with remote controlled airplanes and not when it is perpetrated by teenagers who believe they are defending their nation or even their god. There is also good reason to try and understand both ends of that spectrum of unacceptable violence. Doing so, hopefully, can help us prevent more innocent lives being stolen by altering the conditions that nurture violence. Deflecting attention from that vital context, by blaming the violence solely on Palestinian incitement, ensures that we will live to see bloodier days yet.