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Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Most Israelis believe Prime Minister Netanyahu screwed up in his handling of the Temple Mount crisis but are willing to forgive him. That is the conclusion of the latest opinion polls that show about 70% feel he handled the affair badly, but if an election were held today, as things stand, Bibi would still form a new coalition government. And that is the bottom line in the sorry story of what has transpired since three Israeli Arabs shot dead two Israeli policemen on Temple Mount on July 15th. So far, the Palestinian rioting has still not ceased although Bibi removed the new metal detectors installed to prevent more sub-machine guns from being smuggled into the religious site for killing more Israelis.

For the record:

Hundreds of years later, the Muslims ... co-opted the site for their Al Aksa Mosque in 691 CE

King Solomon built the First Temple in 827 BCE that was destroyed by Babylonia in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was rebuilt and then also razed in 70 CE by the Romans. The First and Second Temples became the most important religious and national sites of the ancient Israelites, and as such, invaders realized it was necessary to demolish them in order to quell Jewish resistance and national self-determination. Hundreds of years later, the Muslims then came along and co-opted the site for their Al Aksa Mosque in 691 CE, turning it into the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

Fast forward to June of 1967, when the IDF liberated East Jerusalem and Temple Mount where the Muslims always barred Israelis, whether Jewish, Christian or even Muslim from praying. In an act that turned out to be one of historic folly, the then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided to allow the Muslim Religious Council to continue its administration of Temple Mount because nearly all the rabbis at the time deemed Temple Mount so sacred that Jews were forbidden from praying there. But over the years more and more Jews wished to pray at the revered site – some actually have plans to rebuild a Third Temple. At the same time, the Muslims categorically reject any right of Jews to pray on Temple mount despite the fact that it is the original site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. And that is why Temple Mount has become the most dangerous religious flashpoint in the world.

After the two Israeli policemen were shot in the back, Netanyahu rushed to action. The PM agreed with the advice of the Israeli Police, who bear responsibility for security, to install metal detectors for preventing Muslims to smuggle in more sub-machine guns. However, the Shabak Security Service and IDF opposed the move warning it could spark Palestinian riots - which it did. The Palestinians refused to file through the metal detectors and held protest prayers outside on the streets of East Jerusalem. Clashes resulted in a number of Palestinian rioters being shot and killed. Then the crisis skyrocketed – a West Bank Palestinian managed to break into the Israeli settlement of Halamish and stab to death three Israeli civilians. Then he was shot and wounded by an off duty soldier who lived next door. The soldier heard the commotion and swiftly came to the rescue by firing one shot through the window that disabled the attacker.

Bibi eventually decided to remove the metal detectors.

Add to this the attack by a Jordanian worker who stabbed an Israeli security guard inside the premises of the embassy residence in Amman. The Israeli bodyguard managed to open fire with his revolver killing the attacker. A Jordanian bystander was also killed in the gunfire. (Why the embassy and its premises were not on lock-down is yet another screw-up). In any case, to prevent the crisis from going ballistic, Bibi eventually decided to remove the metal detectors. Muslim worshippers have now decided to return to Al Aksa while claiming a great victory over Israel and rejecting the Israeli claim to absolute control over Temple Mount.

In the aftermath, Bibi is being lambasted from the Left, Right and Center of Israel's political spectrum for rash decision making. For instance, he should have first consulted with friendly Arab states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on finding a security solution to Muslims firing machine guns on Temple mount. Then after deciding wrongly to install the metal detectors, Bibi bowed to Palestinian violence with an ignominious climb-down. Moreover, he exploited the return of the Israeli security guard, welcoming him in as a hero on TV. This incensed Jordan's King Abdullah, who was in hot water at home for releasing the security guard without a proper police inquiry. (The Israeli bodyguard enjoyed complete diplomatic immunity). In Israel, Bibi's own Likud politicians have even blasted the PM for giving in to the Palestinians. In Kahlon's party, Cabinet Minister Yoav Gallant, a former IDF commander of the Gaza Strip, disclosed that he had even warned Bibi that it would require hours and hours for the tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers to file through the metal detectors to enter the Al Aksa mosque. In other words, the whole idea of metal detectors was doomed to failure from the start.

...Bibi chose a simple security solution to resolve a complicated and explosive religious issue and then had to back down ignominiously.

So two weeks later after three Israeli Arab terrorists shot dead two Israeli policemen, the Israeli Prime Minister has given the Palestinians the opportunity to prove Israel is not in absolute control of Temple Mount! Despite the advice of the Shabak and the IDF, Bibi chose a simple security solution to resolve a complicated and explosive religious issue and then had to back down ignominiously. Fortunately, he did so before Israel was pitted against the world's one and a half billion Muslims.

Internal fallout…

Is Netanyahu's political future at stake as a result of his recent bungling? Not necessarily – even disgruntled Likud politicians believe the affair will quickly blow over. They understand that Bibi is their meal ticket for remaining in power. Moreover, most Likud rank and file are apparently prepared to forgive him. Channel 10 TV has just conducted an opinion poll in the midst of this current fiasco if an election of Israel's 120-member Knesset were held today:

  • Likud – 28
  • Labor – 20
  • Lapid- 17 
  • Bennett – 13
  • Arab Party- 10
  • Kahlon – 7
  • Lieberman – 7
  • Two Orthodox parties -13
  • Meretz – 5 
Labor would have to draw a minimum of nine Knesset seats from the Right wing bloc.

With Bibi at the helm, the Likud could still cobble a majority of over 60 in the120-member Knesset:

  • Likud- 28
  • Bennett- 13
  • Kahlon – 7
  • Lieberman 7
  • Ultra-Orthodox – 13

Total – 68 and Bob's your uncle! All the rest add up to 52. Therefore Labor would have to draw a minimum of nine Knesset seats from the Right wing bloc. This is no easy task.

There are some other unknown factors that have still to be played out. Bibi himself, his private lawyer, and several of his key associates are under investigation for a number of suspected fraudulent actions. As a result, Israel's highly respected former president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar has said the PM should resign for his accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars mainly in expensive cigars and champagne from Israeli millionaire Arnon Milchem. It’s still early days, but Bibi could conceivably be indicted, although legally only an outright conviction would force him to resign. Shamgar contends the late Yitzhak Rabin resigned for far less - holding a foreign bank account when it was then illegal. Another former advisor to the PM has also said that while Bibi, like anyone else, is 'innocent until proven guilty', Bibi has shown a remarkable indifference to the apparently crooked associates around him. Obviously, if a less popular party leader would lead the Likud into an election it would throw the game wide open.

And then there's Avi Gabbay the new leader of Labor who has overtaken Lapid's party in second place. Gabbay is on a meteoric rise - in less than six months he has taken over the party and raised Labor's hopes that the sky could be the limit. Gabbay is revamping the old party apparatus that founded the state under David Ben Gurion. He has shaken up party officials by implementing a new management system with one ultimate goal - how to draw voters from the Likud. He is right - this is the only way Labor can form the next government.

But even if Gabbay continues to attract Lapid supporters, this will only be a shift from one party to another inside the peace camp...

The analysis is pretty simple: Gabbay has already siphoned off supporters from Yair Lapid's party, mainly young residents in the Tel Aviv area who back the two-state solution and oppose the ultra-orthodox control over Israeli society. But even if Gabbay continues to attract Lapid supporters, this will only be a shift from one party to another inside the peace camp – it cannot push Labor over the critical 61-seat majority. This can only come from parties inside the current Netanyahu coalition.

There are several possibilities, such as Moshe Kahlon's party of seven MKs. These voters supported Kahlon, a former Likudnik, because of his vow to solve the housing crisis by adopting a policy that would build many more homes and lower soaring housing prices. Kahlon has only partially delivered, and Gabbay, if he can provide some convincing answers on the economy, could attract these voters.

Then there's Avigdor Lieberman who is also running at seven seats. His rise to Defense Minister has gained him prestige and he has solid support from Russian immigrants, who back his tough stand on retaliating to Palestinian and Hezbollah provocations. But by and large, Lieberman supporters are solid Right wingers and it will take some doing to persuade them to vote Labor. By the way, Lieberman has proposed that in any future peace deal, the Wadi Ara area of Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs live, would be exchanged for West Bank territory. This would mean the Israeli Arabs living there would not leave their homes, but simply become part of the new Palestinian state. After the three Israeli Arabs shot dead two Israeli policemen on Temple Mount, Bibi now agrees with this land swap. (However Israeli Arabs are vehemently opposed to becoming part of Palestine and prefer to remain citizens of the Jewish state). The PM has also raised the possibility of imposing the death penalty for suicide bombers (but somehow this sounds like granting them their last wish).

What can be said from the latest poll is that some voters have dropped from Likud, whereas Labor is on the rise.

The ultra-orthodox Haredim are in the Likud's bag. The Likud whether it's Bibi or who ever, can be depended upon to exempt Yeshiva students from IDF military service and pay them off financially. For example, the last state Budget had a record of government financing for Yeshiva students and their religious seminaries. I have never been able to fathom how Israel's High Court of Justice approves the exemption of all Yeshiva students from compulsory military service and then grants them higher salaries than soldiers on active duty. And this also extends for life. Obviously, there is no other country in the world where Haredim or any other religious group gets such a payoff. And all this is in return for enabling the Likud to form the government.

Naftali Bennett's party is supported by West Bank settlers and hard core opponents to the two-state solution – 'don't give back an inch, the Palestinians will keep trying to kill us no matter what!'. Bennett bases his Land of Israel ideology on the Old Testament which he says forbids the Jewish people to give up any part of the Land of Israel. As for Bennett's backers, they don't come any more hardline.

Summing up, there is a potential pool from Kahlon and Lieberman of voters that could swing 14 MKs. If the magic number based on the current poll is reliable, Labor would have to draw nine of the 14 seats – mission impossible!

So the only solution is to take seats from the Likud itself. If Bibi cannot run as party leader, it's possible. But if Bibi survives his current headaches and runs again, all bets are off. What can be said from the latest poll is that some voters have dropped from Likud, whereas Labor is on the rise.


David Essing

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