Herzog: World concerned about Ben-Gvir

The comment about ultra-nationalist Knesset Member Itamar Ben-Gvir by Israeli President Isaac Herzog came in what is known as a “hot mic” occurrence.

By Erin Viner

The Israeli leader made the remarks while holding political consultations as part of the country’s electoral process over the candidate most likely to build a successful coalition following the 1 November national elections.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners ended a political stalemate after five elections in less than four years. Along with smaller far-right and religious parties, his rightwing bloc took 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, giving Netanyahu a solid majority and easing the process of forming a government.

While campaigning for office, Netanyahu expressed openness to giving a cabinet position to Controversial Member of Knesset (MK) Itamar Ben-Gvir – whose Otzma Yehudit alliance with the Religious Zionism party ultimately garnered the third-highest number of votes.

“You have a partner that the whole world around us is worried about,” said President Herzog during consultations with representatives of the religious Shas party, apparently thinking the nearby microphone had been switched off.

“You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. This is a critical issue,” said the President, referring to the flashpoint holy site where the al-Aqsa Mosque was built atop the two Biblical Temples in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site for the Jewish People and revered by Christians, and the third-holiest in Islam. According to a “status quo agreement” after Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War only Muslims are allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, while Jews and Christians are only allowed on scheduled visits under heavy security presence.

Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of racist incitement against Arabs and backing the Kach group  considered by Israel and the United States to be a terrorist organization, supports Jewish prayer at the sacred compound in a challenge to the historic status quo. Moreover, he has expressed interest in being appointed Public Security Minister, which would give him control over the police force charged with enforcing the status quo.

Palestinians and neighboring Arab states are particularly concerned that inclusion of the ultranationalist politician in Israel’s new government could fuel Mideast tensions.

Local media cited unnamed officials in Jordan, the site’s custodian, of warning that “any attempt to change the status quo on the Temple Mount will definitely harm bilateral ties with Israel.”

In attempt to clarify Herzog’s remarks, his office later said that he had discussed the same matters directly with Ben-Gvir. “The President emphasized the responsibility placed on all elected officials” and “in an open and honest conversation, brought up the issue before him as well,” said the statement.

MK Ben-Gvir later stated he has held “many fruitful conversations” with President Herzog, who he said, “is confident that if I speak to the world, they will understand and recognize that I am not generalizing all Arabs.” He added that following those talks, he has made an outreach to the diplomatic community to “explain” his faction’s positions “to the entire world.”

Following this morning’s conclusion of the three-day political consultations with all parliamentary groups elected to the 25th Knesset, Netanyahu has been invited to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Sunday to be officially tasked to begin formation of the country’s 37th government.

64 MKs recommended Netanyahu for the role, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was backed by 28 MKs, while four factions amounting to 28 MKs abstained from nominating any candidates.

Factions recommending Netanyahu were Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam. Those who selected Lapid were Yesh Atid and Labor, and refraining to back any candidate were National Unity, Yisrael Beitenu, and the mostly-Arab parties Hadash-Ta’al and the United Arab List (Ra’am).

According to Israel’s Basic Law, the candidate has 28 days to form a new government. If an extension is required, the President has the legal authority to grant an extension of up to 14 additional days.