Temple Mount Crisis Wearing On Netanyahu. But Are There Any Challengers?

Temple Mount Crisis Wearing On Netanyahu. But Are There Any Challengers?

Scratches are mounting on Mr. Teflon

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on May 14, 2017. Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on May 14, 2017. Getty Images

Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — widely known as Mr. Teflon for his ability to shrug off political mistakes and opponents — took a real beating in the opinion polls over his handling of the recent Temple Mount crisis.

In a Channel 2 poll, 77 percent of adult Israelis surveyed said he had “capitulated” to international pressure to remove the metal detectors Israel placed at the mount’s entrances after three Arab citizens of Israel murdered two Israeli policemen guarding the holy site.   

Sixty-eight percent said they supported Netanyahu’s initial decision to install the detectors, a move OK’d by the Trump administration but which spurred both peaceful prayer vigils and widespread rioting in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel and Jordan.

If that weren’t enough, Netanyahu also awoke to a front-page opinion piece in the daily newspaper Israel Hayom — owned by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson and considered staunchly pro-Netanyahu — that referred to the prime minister’s “feeble” and “helpless” actions on the Temple Mount.

Israeli border guards keep watch over Palestinian worshippers praying outside Jerusalem’s Old City overlooking the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Getty Images

Despite these polling numbers, Netanyahu will likely weather this storm as he has weathered so many others, political analysts predict, because there is no one on the horizon to replace him on Election Day.

Right-wing Israelis “don’t like him but don’t see anyone else leading the country,” said Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “In the eyes of the Israeli Jewish majority, he has no real challengers.”

Hermann said many Israelis continue to view Netanyahu as Mr. Security at a time when the majority of Jews question the loyalty of Israeli Arabs and consider them and other Palestinians a security threat.    

“The right wing isn’t happy but they don’t have anyone else.”

In the latest Peace Index (co-edited by Hermann) published on Aug. 2 by IDI and Tel Aviv University, 56 percent of Jewish Israelis said they believed that “at least half” of Israel’s Arab citizens support the terror attack on the Temple Mount, while 71 percent believe “half” of all Palestinians support the recent terror attack in the settlement of Halamish, in which an elderly Israeli man and two of his adult children were murdered during Shabbat dinner.

Lahav Harkov, the Jerusalem Post’s senior Knesset correspondent, agrees with Hermann.

“The right wing isn’t happy but they don’t have anyone else,” Harkov said, noting that while Netanyahu rival Naftali Bennett has been “slamming” the prime minister over the Temple Mount, whether Netanyahu’s removal of the metal detectors and security cameras will have an impact on Netanyahu’s political future “will depend on whether the elections are held anytime soon, and I don’t see any immediate indication of this.”

Israeli police and Palestinians clash in eastern Jerusalem, July 2017. Getty Images

However, if Netanyahu suffers additional blows — if a full-blown third intifada breaks out between now and October, when the Knesset will reconvene — “it could have real impact,” Harkov said. “In Israel you never know.”

Jonathan Rynhold, a Middle East analyst and senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, also doubts that Netanyahu’s Temple Mount performance will have any long-term consequences.

His image as Mr. Security is declining, but until there is a credible alternative, right-wing Israelis will continue to vote for him.

“That part of the Israeli public that swings between parties sees the Palestinians as mainly responsible for the crisis. Yes, they think [Netanyahu] caved in but they don’t feel anyone else would have been better on security, at least at this moment,” he said.

Which is not to say that Netanyahu’s Teflon isn’t getting scratched.

“His image as Mr. Security is declining, but until there is a credible alternative,” right-wing Israelis will continue to vote for him, Rynhold predicted.

The political scientist theorized that if Yair Lapid, who heads the moderate Yesh Atid Party, were to run with Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff and minister of defense, “they might pose a serious threat.”

Rynhold said at least some secular Russian-speaking Likud supporters may be looking for an alternative. They are upset not only by Netanyahu’s decision to remove the metal detectors, but also by his willingness to “cave into extreme right and charedim” on religion-state issues such as Shabbat closings and the currently frozen conversion law that would make non-Rabbinate conversions illegal. There are an estimated 300,000 Israelis of Russian descent who are not halachically Jewish.

Hamas forces take part in a military parade in Gaza City on July 26, 2017 as a tense standoff was underway between Israel and Muslim worshippers at the Temple Mount compound. Getty Images

Aaron Lerner, editor of the influential right-wing IMRA newsletter and a member of the central committee of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said that although Netanyahu’s base is far from thrilled by his actions on the Temple Mount “I really don’t see this having any long-term impact on his future.” Israel, Lerner said, “has a news cycle that’s measured in hours, not days, even though this one is lasting a little longer.”

If anything, Lerner said, the episode has emboldened religious right-wing Jews to visit the Temple Mount – something a record 1,300 Jews did on Tisha b’Av this week.

The one thing that could hurt Netanyahu’s chances of winning reelection, he said, is territorial compromise.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leading the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 25, 2017. JTA

Referring to a Channel 2 report last week widely shared by right-wing news sites, Netanyahu offered Trump advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt a proposal that would see Israel exchanging Arab towns in the Wadi Ara region in northern Israel for the West Bank settlements of Gush Etzion.

Umm al-Fahm, the hometown of the three Temple Mount terrorists, is in Wadi Ara, a stronghold of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

“People are calling [the Wadi Ara plan] the ‘Auschwitz Borders Minus,’” Lerner said, alluding to Israeli diplomat Abba Eban’s famous description of Israel’s tenuous 1948-1967 borders.

Lerner said Netanyahu’s plan — if it is true — would endanger Israel’s existence.

“The question is, is this something Netanyahu is seriously considering or a throw-away idea? Because the residents of Wadi Ara would find a way to retain Israeli citizenship while still voting [for representatives] in the Knesset.”

Lerner called the idea shallow. “I don’t see this going anywhere,” he said, and neither is Netanyahu.

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