JERUSALEM (AP) — For years, Yehuda Glick has pushed for greater Jewish access to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site — promoting an ideology that has unnerved Palestinians and made him the target of an assassination attempt. Now, as a new member of Israel's parliament, Glick is vowing to use his office to press his cause, bringing his explosive campaign to the nation's corridors of power.
Glick, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, is the man most associated with Jewish activism at the hilltop compound revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. While he portrays his call for expanded Jewish prayer as a matter of human rights, critics say his true aim is to usher in a messianic age that would see a Jewish shrine rebuilt where a mosque now stands.
"Twenty years ago, Temple Mount activists were considered totally delusional, extreme, marginal. Today, half of the Knesset's members agree with the basis of what I express," Glick, 51, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Jews revere the Temple Mount as the site of the two biblical Temples. The Noble Sanctuary is the third-holiest site in Islam, housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, from where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Palestinians view the site as a potent national symbol.
For decades, Israel has enforced a status quo at the site that allows non-Muslims to visit but not pray there. That directive has the support of most rabbis, who say the site is too holy for Jewish prayer, though a growing number of rabbis have relaxed such bans.
While Jews pray for the Temple to be rebuilt, they worship at the adjacent Western Wall, a retaining wall of the ancient Temple complex.
The site has long been a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and an increase in visits by Jews and Israeli lawmakers last year was met by Palestinian protests, sparking clashes with police. That deteriorated into what has become a nine month-long spell of violence that has killed 28 Israelis and some 200 Palestinians.
About two dozen advocacy groups focus on boosting Jewish visits and prayer rights. These groups all maintain their goal of a messianic age when a Jewish Temple will be built, by most estimates where the Dome of the Rock stands today.
Glick, who once headed an organization that built a model of the hoped-for Temple, now tempers his message, saying he wants to turn the mosque compound into a shared prayer space and "place of peace." He blames Muslim activists for any tensions at the sacred site.
Glick has experienced success in part because he frames the campaign as a battle for human rights and freedom of worship, a message that resonates with secular Israelis. He claims that in the decade since 2005, Jewish visits to the site more than doubled from 5,000 to 12,000 per year, numbers police could not confirm.
Now that he's in the Knesset, Glick hopes to see that number skyrocket. Key lawmakers, some of whom Glick counts as his closest friends, have been receptive to his message.
In recent years, a parliamentary committee held discussions about allowing Jewish prayer at the site. Last year, when the violence broke out, two senior lawmakers, both devout Jews, told Israeli media they would like to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount.
"The Israeli Knesset and all of us are proud that, from today, you are our partner here," Cabinet Minister Zeev Elkin told Glick on his first day in the Knesset.
Glick, who lives in a West Bank settlement and is instantly recognizable with his bushy red beard, ran for parliament on Likud's list of candidates in the last elections, just barely missing the cutoff to become a legislator.
But following a whirlwind period that saw the resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and his replacement by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, Glick entered the Knesset last month. Upon his resignation, Yaalon lamented that the party and the country were being overtaken by "extremist" forces.
Glick could prove a challenge for Netanyahu, who has tried to contain tensions surrounding the holy site and has repeatedly denied accusations that Israel is trying to change the status quo there.
Netanyahu has banned all legislators from visiting the Temple Mount since the violence erupted last year. Glick, who used to visit the sacred compound daily, said he will not violate the directive but will work to have it rescinded. Glick made one final visit just before being sworn in, drawing a warning from Netanyahu that "this is the last time you do this kind of thing to me."
The higher profile will also bring new scrutiny. Glick's movements and statements are closely watched by the Palestinians. He was shot four times at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman in 2014 and spent half a year in recovery. His Facebook profile is awash in threats by Muslim users.
The Jordanian Islamic authority that administers the holy site said it expects Israel to restrain Glick. "We are going to defend our sacred mosque with all means," said Azzam al-Khatib, director of the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem.
Glick's critics see his new role as part of a broader religious radicalization that is likely to exacerbate tensions between Jews and Muslims.
"He will continue to take a lead on the push to change the status quo on the Temple Mount," said Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem. "When that comes from within the Knesset and the ruling party, that has a destabilizing effect."
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.