The Biden administration says it would be "unacceptable" for Israel to end the restriction on Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount and it would oppose any effort to disrupt the "historic status quo" that only allows Muslims to pray at the site. The stance is a blow to diplomatic relations between the United States and the newly installed Israeli government and signals the Biden administration intends to call out the Jewish state on issues other administrations might address behind closed doors.
When asked by the Washington Free Beacon this week if the Biden administration would back changes proposed by conservative Israeli leaders that would allow Jews to pray at the holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews, a State Department spokesman said it is "unacceptable" for Israel to depart from longstanding policies.
"The United States stands firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem," the spokesman said. "Any unilateral actions that depart from the historic status quo is unacceptable."
The Biden administration’s tough diplomatic stance is leading to concerns about a growing rift between the United States and Israel. President Joe Biden sparked criticism last year when he did not immediately phone Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election win, which observers saw as a sign of chilly relations between the world leaders. The Biden administration also launched an FBI investigation into the death of a Palestinian-American journalist, despite Israel and the State Department determining the killing was accidental. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also dispatched in early December to headline a conference organized by J Street, a leading anti-Israel group working to oppose Netanyahu’s government.
The Biden administration’s willingness to join the international chorus of Israel bashers has sparked outrage among pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress and former U.S. officials who see the United States as distancing itself from the Jewish state.
"Should it really be this difficult for the U.S. government to publicly affirm that Jews have a right to visit the holiest site in their religion?" said Richard Goldberg, a former White House National Security Council official who serves as a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. "Is the policy of the State Department: Freedom of religion for all except Jews?"
The Temple Mount—a religious area in Jerusalem’s Old City—emerged as a flashpoint in U.S.-Israel relations earlier this month when Israeli leader Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the area and suggested Israel could shift policy to allow Jews to pray at the site.
Longstanding policy has allowed both Jews and Muslims to visit the site, but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. This "historic status quo," as it is known in diplomatic parlance, was enacted to prevent violence from breaking out on the Temple Mount area, frequently a site where Palestinians revolt against the Israeli government. Ben-Gvir, a national security minister in Netanyahu’s conservative government, signaled during his visit that the Temple Mount’s status could change under the Netanyahu administration.
When pressed to expand on its stance, specifically whether Jews have a right to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, the State Department spokesman said, "It is not up to the United States to define the historic status quo. That is a question for the parties."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the Biden administration has a "pathological obsession with undermining Israel [and] is endangering the national security of America and our allies."
"It should not be controversial for a Jew to visit the holiest site in Judaism," Cruz said.
Jews are permitted to visit the Temple Mount, but prayer is specifically verboten. Ben-Gvir, while visiting the site this month, said, "We don’t give in. We don’t surrender. We don’t blink." He also told the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview, "Why are Arabs permitted to worship and Jews forbidden? I want equal rights."
Ben-Gvir’s actions prompted an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week, which accused Israel of breaching the longstanding agreement that restricts Jews from praying on the Temple Mount. The Biden administration, which scolded Israel after Ben-Gvir’s visit, said it is ready to reiterate its opposition to any change in the status-quo governing the site.
"If a member of the U.N. Security Council requests a meeting on this issue, we will be ready to reiterate our views to our fellow Security Council members," the State Department told the Free Beacon.
Israeli officials lambasted the session, claiming that Ben-Gvir’s visit was not part of a bid to stoke tensions with the Arab world.
"Minister Ben-Gvir’s recent visit to the Temple Mount was not an incursion into al-Aqsa or any other fabrication that the Palestinians branded his visit as," Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan said during last week’s session. "Minister Ben-Gvir’s visit was in line with the status quo, and whoever claims otherwise is only inflaming the situation."
"Jews," Erdan added, "are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Every Jew!"