In 2009, Israel arrested the head of the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement for incitement, for saying that Israel “seeks to build a synagogue on Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Since then – and especially over the past two years, as unrest has rocked Jerusalem – Netanyahu has regularly argued that Palestinian Authority incitement over the Temple Mount is a chief cause of violence, and has called Palestinian officials’ statements about Israel’s intentions on the Temple Mount “gross lies.”
Earlier this month, on August 14-15, Jews observed the fast day of Tisha B’Av, commemorating various catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people, including the destruction of the first and second temples. Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister, Eli Ben-Dahan, marked this solemn occasion by telling a crowd gathered for a march around the Old City: “We aren’t embarrassed to say it: We want to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount.”
To be clear: if Ben Dahan were a private individual expressing his personal views, there would no issue. It is as much the right of religious Jews to aspire to rebuild the Temple as it is the right of Muslims to hold the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sacred. But Ben Dahan is not merely a private individual. He is a highly-visible member of the Israeli government. As such, his words are rank incitement, stoking Palestinian fears and anger over Israeli intentions vis-à-vis the Temple Mount. They are no less incitement than Palestinian claims that Israel is digging under the al Aqsa Mosque, and Muslim claims that Jews have no religious or historic claims to the Temple Mount.
So why hasn’t Netanyahu publicly reprimanded Ben Dahan for his incitement? Indeed, why hasn’t Netanyahu rebuked other Israeli public officials for spreading similar “gross lies” about Israeli intentions on the Mount? Like Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home), who has repeatedly made approving remarks about building the Temple (including in November 2014, July 2013, and January 2013; and in May 2012, when Ariel and then-Knesset member Michael Ben Ari were filmed with other activists praying on the Temple Mount, contrary to Israeli law, and singing, “We will build the holy temple”).
Netanyahu likewise said nothing earlier this summer, when Israel’s chief rabbi – a government employee – urged rebuilding the Temple. Nor did Netanyahu speak up in November 2015, when it came to light that his controversial nominee for chief of public diplomacy, Ran Baratz, had written approvingly of the desire to build the third Temple (Baratz was subsequently appointed Netanyahu’s media advisor).
Netanyahu held his silence, too, in November 2014, when then-Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, during a filmed tour of the Temple Mount, pointed to the Dome of the Rock and described it as “the place where the 3rd temple will stand, soon, with G-d’s help.” Nor was Netanyahu moved to say anything in July 2012, when then-Knesset member Zevulun Orlev published an article calling for building the third Temple and, to do so, removing the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.
Netanyahu’s consistent silence is even more troubling when you follow the advice of Vice President Joe Biden: “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” As reported extensively in the Israeli media (in 2012, 2013, November 2015, and December 2015), successive Netanyahu-led governments and their members have supported and cooperated with Israeli organizations devoted to the goal of rebuilding of the Temple, most notably, the Temple Institute.
Netanyahu’s failure to publicly reject the statements of Ben Dahan, Ariel, and the others – and his governments’ support for the Temple Institute and its ilk – can, in the most generous interpretation, be viewed as evidence of Netanyahu’s political cowardice, opportunism, and hypocrisy. Viewed through a lens colored by anger and mistrust, they appear to bolster Palestinians’ worst fears regarding Israel’s true intentions on the Temple Mount.
In December 2015, Netanyahu told fellow Likud members in a private meeting (audio of which was leaked) that if Israel wanted to destroy Al-Aqsa “it would not require a great effort… but it goes against everything we stand for.” This casual statement gets to the heart of the matter.
Palestinians don’t need Netanyahu to remind them that Israel has the power to destroy al-Aqsa – they know and fear this, viscerally. Palestinians likewise have very compelling reasons to doubt Netanyahu when he says it won’t happen – because Netanyahu’s silence when members of his own government speak out in support of rebuilding the Temple, along with his governments’ quiet support for groups working to achieve this goal, sends a very different message.