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High On The Har Featured in Haaretz

Following the stabbing of a police officer in Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday, Temple Mount activists demanded that the incoming government take action to secure the site and its surroundings and apply full Israeli rule to what many see as the most volatile religious flash point in Jerusalem – and in the entire Middle East.

“The Arabs continue to fight with us on the Temple Mount because they understand its significance,” the Return to the Mount organization said in a statement calling on “all the partners in the next government and in particular the Religious Zionist party to insert clauses regarding Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount into the coalition agreements.”

Winning 64 seats in Israel's election according to the final vote count on Thursday, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right partners secured a decisive majority in the next Knesset.

The Religious Zionism party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, which at 14 seats is now the third-largest faction in the Knesset, is poised to become an integral part of the next coalition.

Netanyahu has refused to rule out the possibility of appointing Ben-Gvir, a far-right Kahanist, as Public Security Minister, a possibility which has sparked speculation that the lawmaker, well-known for his visits to the Jerusalem holy site, could take steps to loosen restrictions on Jewish pilgrims there.

Asked what changes Ben-Gvir could implement, spokesman Yishai Fleisher said that while the politician believes that “there should be an end to racist laws on the Temple Mount,” it is premature to discuss specific policy initiatives.

“I don’t have all those answers ready and I think I feel like you have to accept the fact that right now is a different stage, a stage of negotiations,” he said, explaining that “we are looking for non-racist laws and that means basically freedom of worship. That means bowing down. That means praying. That means normal freedom of worship.”

However, despite the unprecedented success of the far-right in this week’s Knesset election and the increasingly strident demands of some of their colleagues, some Israeli Temple Mount activists have said that they do not anticipate any immediate or significant changes to the religious status quo.

“If Ben-Gvir actually gets the Public Security Ministry I expect him to focus on the south, mixed cities and crime in the Arab sector first,” one frequent pilgrim, who asked not to be identified by name, said on Thursday, adding that he was “tempering” his expectations.

Yehuda Levi, a member of The Temple Mount Yeshiva, a group which ascends the mount twice a day for Torah lectures, agreed, telling Haaretz that “I don’t believe much is going to change at all.”

Ben-Gvir, whose wife Ayala is a well known Temple Mount activist, “knows how to get his base motivated but ultimately he won’t burn everything down because he'll end up a one-term leader, and that’s not worth his while,” said Levi, who warned that even if he becomes minister, Ben-Gvir will be “limited to what Netanyahu is going to allow him to do.”

“People thinking he’s going to reinstitute sacrifices are foolishly optimistic,” he said. “Maybe bowing [will be allowed] but I’d be very surprised if it happens before year three of his tenure.”

Asked this week how he would respond – should he form the next government – to a possible demand by Ben-Gvir to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, Netanyahu said that he wanted “to maintain the status-quo.”

Most likely, predicted Levi, the police will slowly become more permissive regarding what Jewish pilgrims, who are only allowed to ascend during a short period every day and are barred from expressive forms of prayer, can and cannot do.

Prayer on the Temple Mount has long been a contentious issue, with conflicts over the site repeatedly sparking violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians — but a growing number of Israeli Jews now appear to support public worship.

Since 2019, the Israeli police have grown increasingly tolerant of Jewish prayer, which, while technically legal, has long been barred due to law enforcement officials’ concern that allowing such religious expression could lead to violence.

While “it is to be hoped that the political and security policy of the elected government will have a positive effect on the feeling of security on the Temple Mount [and] lead to an expansion of visiting hours on the Temple Mount and a relaxation of the restrictions imposed on religious Jews there,” the “most important change is actually measured in the long term, and goes far beyond the question of forming the next government,” asserted Aviya Fraenkel, an activist who leads groups onto the site.

“The more critical process, which naturally we tend to ignore, concerns the attitude of the Israeli public to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem,” she explained.

According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, half of Jewish Israelis support Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount while 40 percent oppose it, making any significant change to the status quo unlikely.

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