Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who is in preliminary consultations with Knesset faction representatives before selecting his choice for the next Israeli prime minister, reportedly stated on Wednesday that “all the world” is fearful of far-right party leader Itamar Ben Gvir.
According to the report, Herzog made the comment about the Jewish Power party leader while speaking with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, supposedly believing that the microphones were off.
“There’s one issue I didn’t talk about because I don’t want to shame anyone,” Herzog reportedly told Shas. “You will have a problem with the Temple Mount. This is a critical issue. You have a partner who all the world around us is fearful of. I also told him this, between us. Really this is not for publication. I don’t want to make trouble, but I think you have a responsibility,” the Israeli president said.
The Israeli presidency is largely a ceremonial position that is supposed to remain neutral on political matters. However, like his predecessors Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin, Herzog has chosen to use the Israeli presidency to advance efforts toward regional peace and cooperation.
Like critics in the Arab world and the West, Herzog fears that Ben Gvir could undermine the recent progress in Arab-Israeli cooperation around the Middle East.
Ben Gvir previously identified with the late Meir Kahane, who advocated for the transfer of all Arabs from Israel, but said he has since modified his position and is only against terrorists but not all Arabs.
The controversial far-right politician responded to Herzog’s reported comments, stating that “President Isaac Herzog and I have had many fruitful conversations in recent weeks. More than once the president pointed out to me that the close familiarity with my views and plans has managed to sway hundreds of thousands in Israel and that he is confident that if I speak to the world they will understand and recognize that I am not generalizing all Arabs.”
“Following the talks with the president, I started meeting with diplomats and will work to explain Jewish Power’s positions to the entire world,” Ben Gvir said.
The politically sensitive Temple Mount is a potential friction point between the incoming right-wing religious government in Israel and the surrounding Muslim Arab world.
The current “status quo” established by the Jordanian Waqf, or religious authority, states that, in practice, only Muslims are permitted to pray on the ancient Jewish Temple Mount, despite it being considered sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Ben Gvir and members of his religious right-wing alliance seek to challenge this.
Many Muslims have perceived Ben Gvir’s visits to the Temple Mount as provocative, and critics of the politician fear they could ignite a new wave of violence between Jews and Muslims.
Religious Jews in Israel are divided on whether Ben Gvir and Jews in general should visit the Temple Mount.
In June, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef spoke out against Ben Gvir, stating his visits to the holy site are only politically motivated, and urged religious Jews to stay away from the politician.
“This MK comes, goes up to the Temple Mount, stirs things up and also transgresses every order of [the great ones of Israel],” lamented the chief rabbi. “‘Oy va’voy!’ [Woe to us!] You need to distance yourself from these things, to keep your distance from him and from all those who lead him. What kind of leaders are these?” Yosef said.
Israel should annex parts of Judea and Samaria, according to Bezalel Smotrich, another far-right MK and a Ben Gvir ally. Smotrich is expected to receive a senior position if the government is formed by Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 2020, Netanyahu advocated for annexation of the territories that form the biblical heartland of the nation of Israel, but eventually changed his position, with political developments shortly afterwards leading to the signing of the historic Abraham Accords.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has warned that Washington will not accept a unilateral Israeli annexation of the territories.
“We will push back against any attempt at annexation. We don’t support annexation. It’s not just us; it’s most countries,” Nides told Israel’s Kan Bet news outlet.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.