Israel’s new far-right national security minister sparks controversy with holy site visit

Five days after taking office, Israel’s new national security minister made a rare visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The site is revered by both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount, and has for decades been at the center of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Nick Schifrin has more on the visit and why it is so controversial.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Two days after taking office, Israel's new national security minister made a rare visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The site is revered by both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount, and has for decades been at the center of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

    Nick Schifrin has more on the visit and why it's so controversial.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Surrounded by security, an Israeli Cabinet member walks on one of the holiest sites on Earth.

    National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir 15 minutes on the Al-Aqsa compound, which Israelis called the Temple Mount, the ancient temples that once stood here.

  • Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli National Security Minister (through translator):

    The government which I'm a member of, there won't be racist discrimination, and Jews will visit the Temple Mount.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For decades, under what is known as the status quo, non-Muslims can visit, but aren't supposed to pray.

    Muslims consider the site the third holiest in Islam, from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. Today, Arab governments that have normalized relations with Israel issued condemnations. Jordan, which administers the site, summoned the Israeli ambassador and called the visitor a — quote — "break-in."

    The United Arab Emirates accused Ben-Gvir of — quote — "storming the compound." Hamas, which runs Gaza warned of violence.

  • Hazem Qassam, Hamas Spokesman (through translator):

    This provocative behavior by the right-wing government will open the door wide for real waves of escalation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the Palestinian Authority accused the Israeli government of trying to change the status quo.

  • Mohammad Shtayyeh, Palestinian Prime Minister (through translator):

    We call on all our people to confront those raids that aim to turn the shrine into a Jewish temple.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    State Department spokesman Ned Price also urged Israel not to change longstanding policy.

  • Ned Price, State Department Spokesman:

    We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo. They are unacceptable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement he is — quote — "committed to strictly maintaining the status quo without changes on the Temple Mount."

    And, in an NPR interview last month, Netanyahu vowed his coalition would play by his terms.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister:

    They're joining me. I'm not joining them. I will have two hands firmly on the steering wheel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ben-Gvir is a senior member of that right-wing coalition. He's called for some Arabs to be expelled from Israel and was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization in 2007.

    The coalition has also-called for annexation of the occupied West Bank. Today in Bethlehem, Palestinians buried a teenager they say was killed by Israeli soldiers. Last year was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2004.

    Netanyahu's statement today pointed out previous Cabinet ministers have visited the Al-Aqsa compound, but this was the first high-level visit in years, and previous Israeli official visits have set off violence.

    To discuss this, I'm joined by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a longtime watcher of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

    Shibley Telhami, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland: Pleasure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So far, this visit has not sparked violence. Why?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, first of all, violence doesn't always start immediately.

    If you go back to the one incident that has sparked — what seemed to have sparked the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ariel Sharon's visit.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Ariel Sharon in 2000.

    It didn't — didn't immediately have violence as a consequence. It slowly started and expanded. And so, first of all, it's too early to know whether there will be violence or not. Second, there has been violence. We're not just paying attention to it.

    As you have reported in the piece, there's been a lot of incidents of violence. It's been one of the most violent years in recent memory in the occupied…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the occupied West Bank, yes.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    In the occupied West Bank.

    But here's the thing. What really is peculiar is, the first question we asked, is this likely to spark violence, not whether it's wrong, not whether it violates international norms, whether it's going to have consequences that are not necessarily violent across the region. And that is, I think, wrong, because I think, obviously, the violence that we have been witnessing over the past few months has not been tied directly to Al-Aqsa Mosque.

    It's been about years of military rule over Palestinians, with no end in sight. And, for that reason, I think that we should be mindful of criticizing violations of human rights, violations of international norms, regardless of whether there's violence. In fact, that's the only way to minimize the chance of violence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned impact on the region.

    The — we reported on the UAE's criticism. The UAE has been relatively silent when it comes to criticizing Israel until today. Could a visit like this derail efforts at normalization that Prime Minister Netanyahu and, frankly, President Biden, both sides are a priority?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, the UAE, in particular, has made a strategic decision to make peace with Israel. That's obvious.

    And we have seen it. They have even invited Ben-Gvir himself to their Independence Day reception in Israel. And the ambassador greeted him warmly. But even they are feeling the heat of public opinion in the region. Obviously, we have — you have had a discussion of the World Cup in Qatar, and how our populations seem to express so much solidarity with Palestine, including in countries that have made peace with Israel, like Morocco.

    And they have to be mindful of that. So I think, yes, I think they will be paying more attention.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about the U.S. response.

    Last week, we had on David Makovsky, who, of course, has appeared many times on this show with you. He's from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he said the Biden administration would try to establish the principles to hold Netanyahu to, talked about no change in the status quo to the Temple Mount, no unilateral annexation of the West Bank, no mass legalization of settlement outposts.

    Do you think the Biden administration will actually try and do that? And could it be successful?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, let's put it this way.

    The Biden administration has done many things right in foreign policy, and I applaud them for it, including on Ukraine. But this has not been one of the issues where they have acted properly. The president has been very reluctant to criticize any Israeli policies, including ones that he know are violations of international norms, in part up until now has been in order to keep Netanyahu out.

    And he thought he would be keeping a centrist Israeli government in power. And look at what he ended with. He now has the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu, who he is trying to keep out. And he's counting on him to rein in people who are more extreme, far more extreme than he is.

    And how are you going to do that by just making statements privately, if there are no costs to be paid? Do you really blame these far right extremists to assume that there will be no consequences for their action? I just don't see it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Netanyahu of course, as we played in the story there, told Steve Inskeep on NPR last month that he had full control, that his hands were on the steering wheel.

    Does he?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Perhaps.

    Obviously, one doesn't know where Netanyahu is ideologically. Is he with this far — extremist far right? We know that he had wanted to claim all of the West Bank anyway. And he had ambition to annex the West Bank in his lust.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But he hadn't taken those steps.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    He hadn't taken those steps.

    But I'm — we don't — I don't know. I don't really know where his ideology is. I know what he has been saying. What he said recently, after he's taken office, is that he believes there should be Jewish exclusivity between — in the territories between the Jordan River and Mediterranean.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But when it comes to what we're talking about today, the Al-Aqsa compound, the Temple Mount, he says that no change in the status quo.

    Can he deliver that promise?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    I don't know. I honestly don't know.

    And I fear not just — we're talking about, obviously, what could be — what could happen in terms of violence. But think — you brought up the king of Jordan, who obviously is very impacted by this, because he's technically the custodian of the holy — Muslim holy places.

    Now, this is obviously a provocative move towards him. And it could very much influence the relationship between Jordan and Israel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And he definitely warned that the status quo can't change.

    We will have to leave there.

    Shibley Telhami, as always, thank you very much.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    My pleasure.

Listen to this Segment