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How Israel's Gilad Erdan is using Temple extremists as his ticket to power

Religion serves as a fig leaf to conceal Israeli nationalist objectives for dominance over its neighbours
An Ultra Orthodox Jew walks reading from a book in the east Jerusalem on 24 January(AFP)

The headline leapt off the page of Makor Rishon, one of the right-wing Israeli dailies owned by Sheldon Adelson. Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, boasted: "Freedom of worship on the Temple Mount? It can happen in the next few years, a decade at most."

He added: "Everyone must consider what he can do in the context of [Israeli] responsibility and authority to achieve sovereignty over our people’s holiest site, our holy Mount. This is what I myself do and promise to do even more in future."

The explicit meaning of such statements is clear to all Israelis: Erdan plans to topple the decades-old compact between Israel and the Jordanian Jerusalem Awqaf, according to which the Awqaf exercised exclusive authority over Al-Aqsa Mosque, to offer the most extreme Israeli settlers, who seek to rebuild the Temple, total and free access to Al-Aqsa.

Full access

Given that it is the third holiest site in Islam, and that the Jordanian government is its guardian, offering full access to settlers will cause an immediate rupture within the Muslim world. It will threaten to resume the deadly riots which brought tens of thousands of Palestinians to Al-Aqsa when in July 2017 Israel installed intrusive surveillance equipment at the compound entrances.

Erdan plans to offer the most extreme Israeli settlers, who seek to rebuild the Temple, total and free access to Al-Aqsa

Erdan is banking on Israel’s budding bromance with the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and its allies, to deflect any potential conflict with the Muslim world. Given how close these relations have become and the military-intelligence collaboration against their mutual enemy, Iran, today, the Saudis seem more than willing to abandon Palestinians.  

And with such abandonment comes a retreat from previous Muslim commitments to defend Al-Aqsa against Israeli encroachment or desecration.

The Israeli government has made a cold, hard calculation that eventually it will get away with whatever it wishes at the holy site. Its alliance with Saudi Arabia will likely protect it from any charges of religious  violations. 

Palestinians will be outraged by the Israeli assaults on the sovereignty of the enclave but they will be left to their own devices - just as Israel wants it.

A 'revolutionary change'

During his tenure as minister, the trespass - or as religious Jews would say, "pilgrimage” - of Israeli settlers on the holy site has increased nearly four-fold to reach 40,000 settlers annually (as of 2018), as Erdan boasted in the interview. 

Erdan’s tenure as minister has encouraged radical Jewish extremists to expect that a 'comprehensive revolutionary change' in status might be imminent

They make their visits during the three Jewish festivals when Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple. The unexpressed sentiment of these visits is to restore the Temple to its former glory, so they can make a pilgrimage to the holy site itself, and not its ruins.

Makor Rishon also lavished praise on Erdan for criminalising all the Muslim religious groups who acted as defenders of the holy site including the Mourabitat, Mourabitoun, and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement.  

According to the report, removing them from the scene has greatly facilitated the ability of Israeli worshippers to invade the sacred space. It also noted that it was Erdan who, for the first time ever, offered access to Israeli Jews to the Temple ruins on Tisha B’Av and Jerusalem Day.  

 Israeli security forces escort a group of Jewish settlers visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June (AFP)
Israeli security forces escort a group of Jewish settlers visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June (AFP)

The latter, in particular, is a day when settler hooligans parade through East Jerusalem neighbourhoods inciting violence and hate against the Palestinian residents.

The Jerusalem Day also falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which served as an even greater provocation. In the past, the "Temple Mount" had been off-limits to non-Muslims during the closing days of Ramadan.

Likud leadership battle

Erdan's tenure as minister has encouraged radical Jewish extremists to expect that a "comprehensive revolutionary change" in status might be imminent. And he has not disappointed them.

He called the current situation "distorted" and promised radical change to correct so-called "discrimination" against Jews within the compound. The minister has gone a step further and promised action in the "near future".

The religious zealots have hijacked the political class and moulded it to their own religious-supremacist specifications

When asked by the reporter whether Jews would see "full freedom of worship", Erdan replied: "I am certain of it, God willing. It cannot be otherwise. The direction in which things are moving is that we will regain an ever-greater level of sovereignty over the site. We will meet this objective when more and more Jews make pilgrimage there. "

Then Erdan shockingly revealed his true intent to rebuild the Temple and restore it to its former glory at the expense of the Muslim holy places: "The fact that Jews can now pray on the Temple Mount does not mean that full redemption has arrived. Because this is dependent on powers beyond me, I cannot predict when this will happen. But it must be an objective realised in the coming years, a decade at most."

Erdan’s interview comes at a crucial juncture for his ruling Likud Party. Its longtime leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is struggling to retain his position as prime minister after two indecisive elections. He also faces three serious corruption indictments which could force his resignation. Erdan, who has political ambitions, sees an opening for a leadership bid if Netanyahu falls.  

An Israeli policeman pushes back a Palestinian woman outside the Old City of Jerusalem after Israeli forces closed the entrance to al-Aqsa mosque compound on 12 March (AFP)
An Israeli policeman pushes back a Palestinian woman after Israeli forces closed the entrance to al-Aqsa mosque compound on 12 March (AFP)

This interview was a carefully crafted message meant to cater to his right-wing settler base, who would be a major constituency in any Likud party primary for a new party leader.

Historical fallacy

Erdan sees the religious conflict as an extension - not the primary motivating factor - of the conflict. Von Clausewitz said "war is a continuation of politics by other means". In Israel, religious conflict is the pursuit of political supremacy by other means.

The struggle for al-Aqsa: Palestinians have 'no one but God to help them'
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Israelis who argue that the Israeli-Arab conflict is essentially based on religious hatred of Jews, or that it is a conflict for global dominance between a western religion, Judaism, and an eastern one, Islam, engage in a dangerous historical fallacy.

Religion serves as a fig leaf to conceal Israeli nationalist objectives for dominance over its neighbours. The real goals are political-military power, control of natural resources, and the land.  

Most Israeli Jews, if they care at all, consider issues like rebuilding the Temple or gaining sovereignty over the site to be peripheral. But these Israelis have permitted the settlers to drive the national agenda in these matters.

Thus, the religious zealots have hijacked the political class and moulded it to their own religious-supremacist specifications. It is much easier to believe that God is on your side than to make difficult political compromises for the sake of peace and security.

Politics can offer a means for two opposing sides to negotiate and resolve differences via compromise. Religion, however, when it is distorted in this context, is a poison that can breed only war and hate.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)