In an interview published last week in the Hebrew news outlet Zman Yisrael, Likud MK Amit Halevi outlined his vision for how Israel should decisively settle one of the most contentious and weighty issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Halevi asserted that the compound should be divided between Jews and Muslims, with the northern and central sections of the compound (including the Dome of the Rock) where the Jewish temples once stood to be reserved for Jewish prayer. Muslim prayer, meanwhile, would be restricted to al-Aqsa Mosque itself, which Palestinians generally refer to as al-Qibli, at the southern end of the mount. He also explicitly called for ending the Hashemites’ custodianship over the site in order to assert Israel as its ultimate and unambiguous sovereign.

MK Amit Halevi by Sharon Gabay, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 (License linked to image)

Ranking at number 36 on Likud’s candidate list in the recent elections, Amit Halevi does not set government policy or wield significant influence within the Likud. Indeed, at least officially speaking, his plan is at odds with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s nominal commitment to preserving the Temple Mount status quo, including the Jordanian Waqf’s administration of the site. But Halevi’s statements could nonetheless contribute to the disintegration of the status quo and add stress to Jerusalem’s already tenuous relationships with Amman and Ramallah. They also exemplify the extent to which the rhetoric of many Likud members is increasingly resembling that of the religious far-right, a concerning harbinger of where Israeli politics is headed under this government and beyond.

The Temple Mount is not only the third holiest site in Islam and a potent Palestinian national symbol; it is also essential to the fabric of life in Palestinian East Jerusalem, both as a place of social gathering removed from the bustle of the city and as the only spot in historic al-Quds that is explicitly reserved for them and where their rights and concerns take precedence over those of Jewish Israelis’. Especially during moments of heightened tension like the confluence of Ramadan and Pesach, fears of a planned Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount cause uproar among Palestinians and exacerbate religious and ethnic unrest in Jerusalem. In recent years, rumors have swirled within Palestinian society of an Israeli plan to divide the Temple Mount between Jews and Muslims like the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a claim that PA spokesman Nabil Abu Runeideh echoed in 2022. These reports of an imminent Israeli government plan to suddenly and unambiguously assert Jewish control over the site were unfounded then (especially in 2022 under Bennett and Lapid) and remain so now. But they reflect real, adjacent concerns, like the rise of messianic extremism in Israeli society, the migration of far-right Israeli civilians into Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem with heavy security protection from the state, increasingly loud rhetoric from the Israeli religious right about Jewish rights to the Temple Mount, and an increase in Jewish prayer and Jewish visitors donning religious garb at the Temple Mount—which, of course, should not be problematic in theory, but nonetheless violates the status quo of “Muslims pray, others visit” that has reigned at the site since 1967.

While to Israelis Halevi’s comments are just the passionate musings of a Knesset backbencher, to Palestinians they give credence to longstanding fears that Israel does intend to assert its dominance over the Temple Mount and sideline them in the process. They have already caused a stir on Palestinian social media. On Monday, at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh denounced Halevi’s plan as an acute threat to the sanctity of al-Aqsa; he also incorrectly referred to it as a bill and stated that the Knesset would move to advance it in the coming days. Regardless of whether this mischaracterization was intentional, a leading figure of the Palestinian Authority addressing Amit Halevi’s Temple Mount “bill” in such a way—in a speech that also addressed legitimate issues like planned settlement construction and the government’s neglect of the ongoing violent crime wave in Arab Israeli society—will doubtlessly stoke acute alarm among Palestinians about Jerusalem and al-Aqsa in a moment when it would otherwise be on the back burner. Shtayyeh and the PA of course bear responsibility for the accuracy of their statements, but on the Israeli side, it is a foregone conclusion that any whisper of a Temple Mount takeover or division will be seen as an imminent threat among Palestinians and could have the real-world effect of leading to ethnic and religious violence over the Temple Mount issue.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem

The other key player directly impacted by perceived threats to the Temple Mount status quo is Jordan, which administers the site. Although Jordan has not commented on the Amit Halevi affair, it is safe to assume that it is paying attention as far-right Temple Mount ideology seeps into Israel’s ruling party and rhetorically threatens the Hashemites’ custodianship of Islam’s third-holiest site. A crucial Israeli partner in the security realm and a moderating actor in Jerusalem, Jordan operates in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere under unique domestic constraints given its large Palestinian population. The current Israeli government has also strained Israel’s strategic relationship with Jordan, partially thanks to the prominence of extreme figures like National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir who openly flout the Temple Mount status quo and Jordan’s role and embrace opportunities for provocation. Now, a member of Israel’s ruling party openly calling to sideline Jordan and unilaterally assert Israeli control over the Temple Mount’s fate could cause further damage to Israel-Jordan ties, particularly if Netanyahu does not counter Halevi’s statements with private or public assurances to the Jordanians.

Israel did, of course, commit to preserving the Temple Mount status quo in meetings with Jordan, Egypt, the PA, and the U.S. at Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh this past February and March. But given its dubious record with these agreements—with Netanyahu immediately disavowing Israel’s commitment to a four-month settlement freeze following Aqaba and the Knesset repealing the West Bank disengagement law right after Sharm el-Sheikh—Israel’s neighbors hardly see this government as credible when it commits to de-escalatory measures. Further calling Israel’s credibility into question, in the lead-up to Ramadan, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director General Ronen Levi affirmed Israel’s commitment to “maintaining the status quo” and “freedom of worship for all”, which reads as somewhat of a contradiction at least as it pertains to the Temple Mount, given that the status quo is traditionally understood to allow exclusively Muslim prayer at the site. As my colleague Nimrod Novik pointed out, the “status quo” ultimately means different things to different actors, given that Israel now essentially turns a blind eye to Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount. When Israel talks about preserving the “status quo,” it typically means the status quo of tacitly allowing Jews to pray at the compound. Jordan and the PA, by contrast, see this state of affairs as indicating a gradual slide into open Jewish prayer at the site, the sidelining of the Jordanian Waqf, and the imposition of direct Israeli administration in its stead.

King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by Addustor, Jordan Press & Publication Co / Khalil Mazraawi, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

The Temple Mount is one of many issues on which Netanyahu has a more moderate stance than many of his partners, including high-level figures like Ben Gvir and low-ranking Likud ideologues like Amit Halevi. Bibi has no appetite to impose a unilateral division of the Temple Mount or advance messianic Third Temple aspirations. While the prime minister has no love for Ramallah and Amman, Israel’s mere participation in the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh summits indicates that he does see dialogue with the Jordanians and Palestinians as worthwhile to avoid a major security escalation. If Netanyahu wants to maintain this diplomatic channel and prevent a security escalation surrounding Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, he should pay closer attention to the messaging coming out of the Likud backbenches, leverage whatever influence he still has left to keep his MKs in line on the issue, and make it clear to Israel’s regional partners and the United States that under no circumstances will his government end the Hashemite custodianship or divide the Temple Mount. The United States, meanwhile, should underscore to Netanyahu that undermining the status quo constitutes a clear red line. Netanyahu has a handful of other lightning-rod issues to attend to in the domestic and international arenas in which his extreme partners have set the agenda, including the judicial overhaul and creeping West Bank annexation. Creeping Israeli “annexation” of the Temple Mount is not another headache Netanyahu should want, and conveniently, on this issue he can rely on the Haredi parties to serve as a moderating force within the coalition due to their staunch religious opposition to a Jewish presence at the site.

The blanket proscription on Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site is unjust and discriminatory. But for the time being it is a necessary and agreed-upon injustice. The Temple Mount is one of the only spheres of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the current status quo does not favor Jewish rights over those of Palestinians, and purely from a conflict-prevention standpoint it is not in Israel’s interests to shift that balance unilaterally. As is the case in Hebron, Israel taking upon itself to “divide” a holy site between Jews and Muslims means Jewish/Israeli dominance in practice. Even if they don’t carry policy weight, comments like Halevi’s should concern those in Israel’s right-wing government who want to preserve a modicum of normalcy in Israel’s strategic relationships.