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An Israeli far-right leader's Al-Aqsa visit sparks outrage and calls for U.N. meeting

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel is lobbying against calls to hold an urgent session of the United Nations Security Council, following a controversial visit by Israel's far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, just days after Israel's new ultranationalist government took office, Ben-Gvir toured the hilltop compound that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The site is revered in Islam as the Noble Sanctuary, where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, but in Judaism it is called the Temple Mount, because it was the location of the biblical Temples.

Ben-Gvir, previously convicted in an Israeli court of ties to an anti-Arab racist organization, has long called for expanded access and rights for Jews on the hilltop. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Ben-Gvir's visit, saying there would be no change to the status quo of the holy site. Arab countries and the U.S. warned that any unilateral changes to the way the religious site is run could spark violence.

The United Arab Emirates, a key ally of Israel, says it is pushing, with China's support, for the U.N. Security Council to discuss the situation. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it urged the UAE to request the meeting, and that it is expected to take place Thursday.

An Israeli diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications, tells NPR that Israel's Foreign Ministry instructed Israeli embassies to lobby countries against any moves the Security Council might take. Israeli news site Walla News first reported the Israeli efforts to block the proposed U.N. meeting.

The UAE was among the first Arab countries to criticize Ben-Gvir's visit to the compound, and held calls with Turkey and Jordan on the matter. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Bahrain have all slammed the visit, with most of them calling it "provocative."

But the UAE's outspoken criticism is particularly noteworthy, given its warm public embrace of Israel. The two countries, with encouragement from the Trump administration, opened diplomatic relations in 2020, and just last month, the UAE's ambassador to Israel hosted Ben-Gvir at an Emirati national day celebration.

Elham Fakhro, a Bahraini research fellow at the University of Exeter, says public opinion in the Gulf is largely opposed to Israeli actions against Palestinians, and is skeptical that formal ties with Arab states can change Israel's policies.

"I think what's happening now is there's been a maturing of the relationship between the two sides. I think the Emiratis are more confident in the relationship with Israel," says Fakhro, author of a forthcoming book on the U.S.-brokered deals that formalized ties between Israel and the Gulf Arab states of Bahrain and the UAE in 2020.

"They're trying to use their influence," she says of the UAE. "Whether or not Netanyahu is going to be a willing partner in that is a different question."

Ben-Gvir's visit to the holy site also drew criticism within Israel from those opposed to the country's new ultranationalist government.

"It's outrageous. It's totally intolerable," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tells NPR. "I completely understand the reaction of the international community."

NPR's Aya Batrawy contributed to this story from Dubai.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the Trump administration in the establishment of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.