Israel’s 37th government takes office
Jan 9, 2023 | AIJAC staff
After more than four years of political instability, an apparently stable Israeli coalition government, led by veteran PM Binyamin Netanyahu and with 64 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset, was sworn in on Dec. 29. This followed the election on Nov. 1, and more than six weeks of coalition negotiations.
However, some of the parties and individuals in this new Government have created controversy both through their expressed views and their policy proposals and actions. This Update looks at the key figures in this Government, and its policy agenda – especially as these are likely to affect Israel’s foreign and defence policy.
AIJAC’s Aharon Shapiro has written a “who’s who”, listing and profiling all of the ministers and other major figures in the new Government.
Below, BICOM (the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre) looks not only at the ministers and parties, but also at some of the details of the new Government’s self-declared priorities and the provisions of the various coalition agreements which made it possible. It also reviews some of the controversies over figures in the government such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and the legislative changes that had to be put in place to allow the Government to form. BICOM further discusses the considerable domestic opposition to major elements of the new Government’s policy agenda. For all this basic background on the new Government, CLICK HERE.
Next up, analyst Richard Pater discusses three individuals he believes will be central to Netanyahu’s international and security agenda – which the PM will likely want to run without much input from his more controversial partners. The three are Defence Minister Yoav Galant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi – all trusted Netanyahu confidantes. Pater also delves into Netanyahu’s hopes to extend the Abraham Accords normalisation agreements to more Arab nations – with Saudi Arabia as the most important target. For more details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman looks at the international reaction to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount last Tuesday. Berman says the strong reaction to the visit was a signal from Israel’s allies and partners that they want to see Netanyahu calling the shots on foreign and security policy in the new Government, and not partners like Ben-Gvir. Berman speaks to several Israeli foreign policy experts about Netanyahu’s challenges in meeting these expectations. For their full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Israeli analyst David Weinberg notes regarding Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount that, not only was it completely consistent with the long-standing “status quo” arrangement which governs the site, but it is the Arab side that is actually trying to impose alterations to that arrangement.
- American columnist Jonathan Tobin argues that while Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount visit was a self-serving stunt, it might have done some good by demonstrating that extremist threats cannot dictate policy.
- Background on the Temple Mount controversy from reporter and analyst Benjamin Weinthal. (Also recommended is AIJAC’s backgrounder on the Temple Mount “status quo” controversy from last year, by Tammy Reznik.)
- Highly critical comments on the new Israeli Government and its agenda, along with debunking some over-the-top claims that Israeli democracy is being seriously threatened, from leading Israeli intellectuals Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis.
- Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, agrees that Israeli democracy remains vibrant, but also calls on critics to allow the new Government to govern even if they disagree with some of its policies.
- Washington Institute expert David Makovsky knowledgeably explores possible friction points between the new Israeli Government and Washington with respect to the Palestinians.
- An interesting and informed discussion of how the political power of ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel, including in the new Government, may actually be harming the welfare of ultra-Orthodox communities, from Haviv Rettig Gur.
- Israel is withholding some tax revenue and taking other punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority in response to the PA’s latest “lawfare” efforts against Israel at the UN. The Jerusalem Post editorialises that these measures are “harsh but necessary” given PA behaviour.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Tzvi Fleischer’s piece in the Australian, arguing that, despite his great experience, managing his new Government will be Netanyahu’s greatest political challenge.
- AIJAC’s media release congratulating Netanyahu and the new Government.
- Colin Rubenstein’s op-ed on the growing mainstreaming of antisemitism in popular culture, published in the Australian late last year.
- With Britain reportedly poised to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corpsas a terrorist organisation, Oved Lobel argues Australia should be following suit.
- Judy Maynard’s piece on the aftermath of Qatar’s divisive and politicised World Cup, published in the Daily Telegraph.
- Justin Amler discusses yet another antisemitism scandal afflicting a senior official of the UN Human Rights Council.
- An AIJAC media release which describes the UN General Assembly resolution late last year referring Israel to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion as “odious”.
New Israeli Government Sworn In
BICOM, Dec. 30, 2022
Binyamin Netanyahu chairs the first Cabinet meeting of his new Government on Dec. 29, after being sworn in. (Photo: Ariel Schalit,/UPI; UPI/Alamy Live News)
What happened: Israel’s 37th government was sworn in yesterday, almost two months after the November 1st election.
- The government will be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returns to rule the country for the third time (and heads his sixth government).
- Netanyahu said his government’s top priorities would be:
- To prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
- To restore security and governance.
- To deal with the cost of living and housing problems.
- To expand the circle of peace (a reference to implementing further accords with Arab states following the Abraham Accords).
- Similar to when Naftali Bennet became prime minister (and Netanyahu lost) 18 months ago, there was no formal handover ceremony with the outgoing prime minister, Yair Lapid. Instead, he and Netanyahu held a handover meeting.
- In an unprecedented move the Attorney General Baharav-Miara was not invited to the first cabinet meeting that was held after the swearing in. However, Netanyahu plans to meet her on Sunday.
- Also yesterday, the Knesset elected a new speaker- Likud MK Amir Ohana. He becomes the Knesset’s first openly gay speaker.
The new cabinet: Overall there will be 31 government ministers, of which five are women.
- Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud
- Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, Likud. A former IDF Maj. Gen.
- Minister of Foreign Affairs*, Eli Cohen, Likud. Originally entered the Knesset with the Kulanu Party.
- Minister of Finance, Betzalel Smotrich, Religious Zionists. Will also have responsibility for West Bank Civil Administration.
- Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, Likud. Expected to lead on judicial reform.
- Minister of Interior minister & Health minister, Aryeh Deri, Shas. Will rotate and become finance minister in two years.
- Minister of Education, Yoav Kish, Likud. Grandson of Brig. Frederick Kish, highest ranking Jew in the British Army during World War II.
- Minister of Transportation, Miri Regev, Likud. Returns to her former role.
- Minister for Housing and Construction, Yitzhak Goldknopf, United Torah Judaism. New leader of his party, first time in the Knesset.
- Minister for National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, Jewish Power. Formerly public security, now with expanded remit.
- Minister for Environmental Protection, Idit Silman, Likud. Former Yamina rebel.
- Minister of Energy*, Israel Katz, Likud. Former finance and foreign minister.
- Minister of Communications, Shlomo Karhi, Likud. First ministerial post.
- Minister for Economy and Industry, Nir Barkat, Likud. Former mayor of Jerusalem.
- Minister of Welfare, Yaakov Margi, Shas. Former minister for religious services
- Minister of Tourism, Haim Katz, Likud. Was under criminal investigation, received suspended sentence with plea bargain.
- Minister for Innovation, Science and Technology, Ofir Akunis, Likud. Returns to previous portfolio.
- Minister of Agriculture, Avi Dichter, Likud. Former public security minister and head of Shin Bet security service.
- Minister for Diaspora affairs and Social Equality, Amichai Chikli, Likud. Declared a renegade Yamina MK, before joining Likud.
- Minister for Culture and Sports, Miki Zohar, Likud. Former Chief Whip.
- Minister for Intelligence, Gila Gamliel, Likud. One of few Likud MKs to have endorsed two-state solution.
- Minister for Strategic Affairs, Ron Dermer. The only minister not an MK, long-term confidant of Netanyahu, and former Ambassador to US.
- Minister for Religious Affairs, Michael Malchieli, Shas. Former Jerusalem Councillor.
- Minister for National Missions, Orit Strock, Religious Zionists. This is a new ministry, with responsibility over West Bank settlements, national service, and pre-military academies.
- Minister for Immigration and Absorption, Ofir Sofer, Religious Zionists. Disabled IDF veteran.
- Minister for Jerusalem and Tradition, Meir Porush, United Torah Judaism. Rebranded from the Jerusalem and Heritage ministry.
- Minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, Yitzhak Wasserlauf, Jewish Power. First time MK, youngest minister aged 30.
- Minister of Heritage, Amichai Eliyahu, Jewish Power. First time MK, grandson of former Sephardic chief rabbi.
- Minister within the Prime Minister’s Office, Galit Distel Atbaryan, Likud. Novelist, originally given reserved slot on Likud list by Netanyahu.
- Minister within the Education Ministry, Haim Biton, Shas. Former head of Shas schools network.
- Minister within the Welfare Ministry, Yoav Ben-Tzur, Shas. Holds a master’s degree from the University of Manchester.
(*will rotate after a year, then rotate back in third year)
Context: Netanyahu previously served as prime minister from 1996-99 and again from 2009-21- a total of 15 years, already making him the country’s longest serving prime minister.
- Despite its homogeneous makeup, the government needed the full time allocation (and an extension) to be formed. This was chiefly due to the coalition partners’ insistence on passing significant pieces of legislation before the government was sworn in. These included:
- An amendment to Basic Law: Government. It now states that an offence for which an individual was given a suspended prison sentence will not be considered to bear moral turpitude. The distinction between a custodial and suspended sentence allows Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister.
- The second part of the amendment will now allow Smotrich to simultaneously serve as finance minister and a minister in the defence ministry. As such, he will be given authority over the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
- Ben Gvir will receive expanded powers over the Israel Police. The newly named national security minister will set police policy priorities and work plans.
- A law was also passed limiting the ability of four rebel MKs to break away and form a separate faction. The law reverts to the previous situation, requiring a third of a party’s MKs to split for a separate faction to be recognised. This tweak was aimed at preventing disgruntled Likud MKs from rebelling.
- Some have interpreted the necessity to pass these laws as a sign of lack of trust in Netanyahu among his partners.
- With centrist parties refusing to sit with Netanyahu because of his own ongoing trial, Netanyahu was forced to accept conditions laid out by his coalition partners. However, now the government has been formed not all those promises will necessarily be implemented as the coalition agreements and the government guidelines are themselves not legally binding.
- In the build-up to forming the government there has been significant focus on its most extreme members, particularly Itamar Ben-Gvir. Yesterday he offered assurances saying, “We came to serve everyone. I will be a minister for everyone. For Jews and Arabs, who are suffering too, from crime.”
- Similarly, earlier in the week Bezalel Smotrich wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he said that “we seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions.”
- He continued: “On matters of religion and state, the new government will never seek to impose anything on a citizen that goes against his or her beliefs. We wish only to increase the freedom of religious people to participate in the public sphere in accordance with their faith, without coercion on secular people.”
- “My critics also mischaracterise the reforms I’ve proposed in my secondary role as a minister in the Defence Ministry with responsibility for certain civil issues in Judea and Samaria. Whatever one’s opinion on ending the Israeli-Arab conflict, the current situation in these regions, in which a feckless military government lacks the civil-service orientation required for governing civil life, is unsustainable. The army needs to deal with security and leave governing to a civil system capable of providing efficient service and protecting individual rights. Our reforms are aimed at developing the area’s infrastructure, employment and economy for the benefit of all. This doesn’t entail changing the political or legal status of the area. If the Palestinian Authority decides to dedicate some of its time and energy to its citizens’ welfare rather than demonising Jews and funding the murder of Israelis, it would find me a full partner in that endeavour.”
- “Israel’s justice system also needs urgent reform to restore democratic balance, individual rights and public trust. In the U.S., elected politicians appoint federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, making the bench at least indirectly responsive to the people. In Israel, sitting Supreme Court justices have veto power over new appointments to the court.”
- The only non-parliamentarian appointed minister is former Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Dermer has long been Netanyahu’s most trusted adviser and served as a key figure in the signing of the Abraham Accords. He will now serve as Minister for Strategic Affairs and will likely work on reaching a normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Opposition to the new government: Domestic opposition to the new government has been extensive and has come from various sectors:
A demonstration against the new Government outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.
(Photo: Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Alamy Live New)
- During the swearing in hundreds of people protested outside the Knesset, many of whom identified with the LGBTQ community and were concerned by the appointments of figures with a record of anti-LGBTQ positions to cabinet roles.
- In recent weeks thousands have attended other protests organised by outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
- Last week leading figures in Israeli high-tech industry wrote a letter of protest to Netanyahu in which they shared their concerns about the new government.
- Over 200 senior doctors signed a document highlighting their concern about the collapse of the legal system.
- Over 1,000 past and present pilots and aircrew members from the Air Force sent a letter to the president of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, asking that she stop democracy from being destroyed.
- Several large companies announced that they would not cooperate with any form of discrimination. Israel Discount Bank announced that it would not extend credit to any business or organisation that discriminates on the basis of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. The Vice President at Microsoft Corporation made a similar commitment.
- Over 100 former diplomats also wrote to Netanyahu, with “profound concern at the serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, its international standing and its core interests abroad emanating from what will apparently be the policy of the incoming government.”
- In early December, over 50 Israeli local authorities pre-emptively declared that they would refuse to cooperate with policies proceeding from Deputy Minister (and sole Noam MK) Avi Moaz’s education brief.
Looking ahead: The first legal hurdle will be next Thursday when an expanded panel of 11 Supreme Court justices will rule on petitions that have been filed against the appointment of Aryeh Deri as minister.
- If the court rules against the appointment it is likely to precipitate the coalition advancing legislation to override the court.
- The Ultra-orthodox are demanding the passing of a military draft bill and are threatening to impose a veto against the 2023 budget if this issue is not resolved. Without passing a budget the government will fall.
Bibi trusts inner circle to tackle Iran and seek new Arab allies
Now Netanyahu’s cabinet has been sworn in, it’s clear the country will be led by a small cohort of moderate loyalists
Jewish Chronicle, January 05, 2023
The three key players in Netanyahu’s security and foreign policy team (left to right) – Defence Minister Yoav Galant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi (Photos: Wikimedia).
Much of the media’s attention has focused on the inclusion of less liberal and more unsavoury characters in the new Israeli government. However, now that it has finally been sworn in, it seems clearer that when it comes to foreign and security policy, the country will be led by a small cohort of more moderate Netanyahu loyalists.
At the first cabinet meeting, Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his government’s top four priorities, two of which relate to foreign and security issues: preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and expanding the circle of peace. (The other two were to restore security and governance, and deal with the cost of living.)
In the peace and security realms the most significant figures are likely to be Yoav Gallant, Ron Dermer and Tzachi Hanegbi.
Mr Gallant is the new minister of defence. A decade ago his candidacy as IDF Chief of Staff was rejected due to allegations of irregularities relating an extension of his family property in Moshav Amikam.
Instead, it was Benny Gantz who became Chief of Staff, whom Mr Gallant now replaces in the defence ministry. Mr Gallant originally entered politics with the centrist Kulanu party (along with new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen), which merged with the Likud under Moshe Kahlon’s leadership in 2019. Similar to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gallant is considered militarily risk-averse and a serious strategic thinker.
Mr Gallant, who still has good personal relations with many on the IDF general staff, will play a pivotal role in combatting Iranian aggression, both conventional and nuclear. He takes on the job at a fateful moment: despite Mr Netanyahu’s longstanding warnings, the Iranians are now on the cusp of reaching the nuclear threshold.
Mr Netanyahu will relish picking up where he left off when he signed the Abraham Accords and will probably make a first official trip to the UAE, possibly next week. Despite signing the accords, he was denied becoming the first prime minister to make an official visit by Covid restrictions (and subsequently losing the election). He is very keen for another foreign policy achievement to add to his legacy.
A normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia is the jewel in the crown, but diplomatic breakthroughs with other Arab and Muslim states are also on the agenda.
Conventionally the road to peace with Saudi Arabia was thought to run through Ramallah.
A normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia would be a “jewel in the crown” for Netanyahu’s legacy – but will require help from Washington (Image: Shutterstock, DorSteffen).
The 2023 version has a crucial stop in Washington. The working theory is that the Saudis no longer prioritise the Palestinians but are more motivated by the shared threat of Iran and advanced military aid they can receive from the US, including advanced stealth F-35 fighter jets (the planes the UAE also coveted in 2020).
In forging these agreements Mr Netanyahu will be assisted by two old allies, Mr Dermer and Mr Hanegbi. Mr Dermer, a long-term adviser and former ambassador to the US referred to by some as “Bibi’s brain”, was for a while touted as the next foreign minister, but that appointment was quashed by rivals in the Likud.
Mr Dermer is unique among the 31-person cabinet as he is not an MK. He takes on the opaque role of Minister for Strategic Affairs (a role cancelled by the outgoing government). The advantage is that it gives him the discretionary remit to pursue Mr Netanyahu’s regional agenda, unencumbered by ministerial bureaucracy.
Similarly, Mr Hanegbi, another long-time Netanyahu confidant placed too low on the Likud list to make it into the Knesset, was instead given the pivotal role as head of the National Security Council.
In the past Mr Netanyahu has used the holder of this role to carry out sensitive diplomatic missions. One can expect both Mr Dermer and Mr Hanegbi to deal with the most sensitive and significant heavy diplomatic lifting in the months ahead.
Richard Pater is Chief Executive of BICOM, based in Jerusalem.
Israel’s nervous allies signal they want Netanyahu – not Ben Gvir – calling shots
Far-right minister’s Temple Mount visit throws PM’s ambitious diplomatic agenda off track; if peace with Saudis is to be an option, he needs to show that he sets policy
By LAZAR BERMAN
Times of Israel, 6 January 2023
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s new National Security Minister, during his controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on Jan. 3. (Photo: Facebook)
It couldn’t have been what Benjamin Netanyahu envisioned for his first week back in power.
The veteran leader — one of the most experienced hands on the world diplomatic stage — had placed foreign policy at the center of his agenda. “The government will work to promote peace with all our neighbors while preserving Israel’s security, historical and national interests,” he promised in his government’s guidelines.
“We are united around clear national goals and we will work together to achieve them,” he further pledged at the start of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, adding that expanding the Abraham Accords to encompass more Arab countries was one of the missions around which his government was ostensibly in harmony.
Netanyahu also blasted the previous Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government for failing to add any countries to the 2020 accords, while arguing that only he could repeat what he had accomplished two years earlier, in the twilight of his previous tenure.
At least outwardly, Netanyahu and his allies seemed confident that they could snag the biggest prize of them all — normalization with Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Sunni kingdom that styles itself protector of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
But as Netanyahu was touting his government’s unity of purpose, early signs of its schisms were causing anxiety in the world, especially among Israel’s closest partners.
Earlier Tuesday morning, a senior coalition partner, Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, toured the Temple Mount compound, hours after reports said he had agreed to put off the visit following a meeting with Netanyahu.
The visit to the flashpoint holy site brought out a different kind of unity than what Netanyahu likely had in mind — that of Israel’s allies, in the US, Europe and the Middle East, in condemnation.
The United Arab Emirates, the country Netanyahu had been planning to make his first destination as prime minister next week, denounced the “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard” and called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.”
The UAE even secured an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Thursday on behalf of the Palestinians.
That reaction wasn’t especially surprising, said Moran Zaga, expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The UAE from the outset defined two issues — one is annexation, and the second is everything that happens in East Jerusalem, especially on the Temple Mount.”
What was a bit more startling was Netanyahu’s trip to the UAE being pushed off — at least to February, perhaps indefinitely. Official sources pointed to logistical considerations, but it was impossible to ignore the timing or the fact that the UAE has managed to deny Netanyahu a photo op with UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed for two years. It sent the Emirati foreign minister to sign the Abraham Accords, and Netanyahu’s previous attempt to fly there as prime minister in 2021 was scrapped, allegedly because of a dispute with Jordan.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, meets with UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi on December 5, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Saudi Arabia, the kingdom at the center of Netanyahu’s vision for a new Middle East order, also blasted the visit.
And the United States, headed by a Democratic administration that remembers well Netanyahu’s brazen challenge to president Barack Obama in the leadup to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, said it was “deeply concerned,” insinuating strongly that it saw Ben Gvir’s action as “unacceptable.”
World reactions this week weren’t noticeably different from past responses to ministers visiting the Temple Mount, said Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.
“On the other hand,” Eran continued, “it is a different situation here because a new government came in just now, and the world is signaling to them, pay attention to our reactions.”
The world, said Eytan Gilboa of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, is showing its nervousness around Netanyahu’s promises that he — not Ben Gvir or far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — will be determining policy, especially on issues like the Temple Mount, settlements and minority rights in Israel.
US relations expert Dr. Eytan Gilboa: “Washington is worried that if Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are allowed to dictate policy, that will undermine long-term hopes for a two-state resolution” (Photo: Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies)
“The main question is how much Netanyahu is going to be able to control those more extreme, right-wing elements in his government,” Gilboa said. “Netanyahu has a credibility problem.”
He added, “Netanyahu’s concessions during coalition talks, as well Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, raise some questions about the kind of control he may have over those elements in his government.”
The UAE has already drawn the ire of many in the Arab world for leading the normalization efforts with Israel. And with Netanyahu set to touch down only days after the Temple Mount visit, Abu Dhabi was put in an even more uncomfortable position.
The decision to postpone the trip could well have been cemented by the visit of Jordan’s King Abdullah II to UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed on Wednesday. Jordan sees itself as the leader of the fight to keep Israel from violating the status quo on the Temple Mount and in the West Bank, and the UAE currently represents the Arab world on the Security Council.
It is hard to imagine that they didn’t coordinate steps to send a firm message to Netanyahu, especially given that it was apparently Jordan that torpedoed Netanyahu’s previous attempt to visit the UAE in 2021 over a Temple Mount dispute.
The Biden administration has different concerns. It feels that both American values and interests were at stake this week. Democracy, always a foundation of Israel’s special relationship with the US, is a central plank of Biden’s foreign policy platform.
Signs that Ben Gvir and Smotrich will be free to pursue their own aims are sure to cause alarm in Washington.
The White House is also nervous about the erosion of core interests. While Washington fully understands that no two-state solution is conceivable in the foreseeable future, it is anxious about threats to that eventuality down the road.
“They don’t want Israeli policies to undermine the potential for that solution,” said Gilboa, “but Ben Gvir and Smotrich want to lay down the infrastructure for annexation.”
Former Netanyahu advisor and diplomat Mark Regev: “The US Administration understands you cannot let groups like Hamas and Hezbollah dictate policy” (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Mark Regev, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu who now heads the Reichman University Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, sees the US reaction differently. Netanyahu has conveyed his commitment to the status quo on multiple occasions, he pointed out, and the US understands that Ben Gvir’s visit did not violate it.
“Both in Washington and in Jerusalem there is awareness of the sensitivities around the Temple Mount,” Regev pointed out, adding that with the two allies in accord over the meaning of the status quo, it was crucial to not let their mutual enemies define it.
“I think this is something the government must stress — you can’t allow groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to dictate policy,” he said.
Headache in The Hague
Tensions with Israel’s Arab partners not only threaten to get in the way of a prospective deal with Saudi Arabia, but they can also further erode support for the Abraham Accords at a time when the street in Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain is already turning against the agreements.
But even more worryingly, signs that Netanyahu isn’t keeping his far-right partners on a tight leash could result in less desire from Washington to cooperate, at a time when Israel needs US support.
The United Nations voted in December to request that the International Court of Justice intervene and render an opinion on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ICJ is sure to vote against Israel, but the severity of the judgment and its recommendations are yet to be determined.
The US has been actively supporting the fight against the Palestinian’s ICJ initiative, and Israel will need Washington’s diplomatic heft even more now that it has reached The Hague.
Israel also has an International Criminal Court investigation on its hands and will need active US backing there as well.
A Democratic White House choosing to punish Israel in international institutions wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In 2016 — a year after Netanyahu delivered his speech in Congress attacking the Obama administration’s attempts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran — the White House chose not to veto a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to all Israeli settlement construction.
Compounding the potential for a showdown with its allies, Israel has been out of step with the West for almost a year on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The issue caused a likely unanticipated and unwanted spat this week when new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced during his inaugural address that “we will talk less” in public about the war, and that he would be fielding a call from his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Ukraine did not hide its displeasure, and even US Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine and an old friend of Israel, publicly chastised Cohen by name.
For now, the US and its Arab allies are going to watch carefully, trying to determine who it is that really calls the shots in Jerusalem — Netanyahu, or ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich.
Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s turbulent first week back in office could be helpful for him in the long run. He could point to the international reaction and make clear to his coalition that provoking criticism from current and potential partners doesn’t serve Israel’s interests.
Netanyahu made the case during the elections that there are diplomatic opportunities that only he can exploit. If Israel is to achieve those goals, the world must understand that only he is making policy in Jerusalem.