How Will the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Be Affected by Israel’s New Government?
Even symbolic references to the possibility of a two-state solution may be ending in the nearly thirty years since Oslo.
Benjamin Netanyahu regained control of Israel’s government as 2022 drew to a close, just eighteen months after his ouster due to a string of impassed elections. As the current prime minister of Israel with the longest tenure, Netanyahu is rather well-known for his views on foreign policy, the Palestinian conflict, and occupation. But with his return and a coalition in power that depends on the cooperation and endorsement of once-extremist political groups and individuals, 2023 could be a year of conflict-provoking unrest. The potential effects of Israel’s new administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well as Israel’s regional and international ties are examined by USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen.
What does the new administration mean for the course of the occupation, diplomatic efforts to find a solution, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A product of both Israeli and Palestinian sociopolitical processes and policies, the likelihood of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations towards a political settlement and an end to the occupation has long remained remote from the standpoint of near-term conflict resolution. It’s unlikely that the current state of affairs will drastically change. We are at a risky turning point in terms of conflict drivers, the possibility of dynamics on the ground deteriorating, and the irreversible end to a viable two-state vision.
In Israel’s history, this government is the most radical and right-wing. Israelis have already taken to the streets in protest, and former Israeli security and diplomatic officials have voiced their grave concerns. Concerns about security have even been raised by Israel’s Defence Forces’ current chief of staff. This is not just wishful thinking. Senior officials have made their views and intentions regarding the “Palestinian issue” clear both in speech and deed.
Although there has been some hesitation on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding his commitment to a two-state future, there is no room for doubt when it comes to the first line of the government’s guidelines document, which is a public declaration of priorities that is not legally binding: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.” A pledge to expressly incorporate the West Bank in the promotion and development of settlement is also included in the document.
For quite some time now, certain high-ranking officials in the current administration have held this unwavering stance. The most prominent of these figures are Itamar Ben Gvir, a convicted terror supporter and instigator of bigotry against the Palestinian people, as well as Bezalel Smotrich, who has repeatedly advocated for the annexation of more land and the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs. As of right now, Ben Gvir holds the newly created position of national security minister, which gives him authority over setting priorities and policies for both the Israeli police force and the border police unit stationed in the West Bank. Smotrich will hold the position of minister in the Ministry of Defence, where he will be in charge of Israeli settlement policy.
Coalition agreements have already been signed committing Israel to annexing the West Bank, though there is no specific date for doing so, and legalising settlements that were previously prohibited by Israeli law. Furthermore, if Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s plan to restructure the legal system is implemented, it will include an override clause that would essentially eliminate any checks on legislative action. This would further the goals of the ruling majority, among other interests, who want to legally resolve cases in the past and take other actions in the West Bank, such demolitions, over which the courts have traditionally acted as a check.
It is impossible to overestimate the perilous consequences for the chances of resolving the issue in the future, for Jerusalem flashpoints, for the fragility of the West Bank, and for the relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens inside the state. The latter are still tending to their injuries from the May 2021 intercommunal violence. Ironically, Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party scored quite well in the elections thanks in large part to the violence and lingering sense of unease that many Israelis felt at the time. This is true even though, in May 2021, Israel’s police chief, Kobi Shabtai, publicly charged Ben Gvir with being the cause of the violent disturbances that stoked the embers of this kind of unrest.
The initial indications, such as the nominations of ministers, are not encouraging for those who depend on Netanyahu’s traditionally circumspect approach to foreign affairs in order to restrain and manage the inclinations and demands of his coalition’s most radical side. They highlight how dependent Netanyahu feels on these forces for both his political and legal survival, with the hope that his coalition allies will approve legislation that would essentially end his continuing corruption prosecution. Ben Gvir quickly followed the swearing-in of the government and disregarded warnings from the US, the world community, and Israel’s own security establishment in order to convey his long-standing claim that “Israel is the owner of the Temple Mount” by making a heavily guarded visit to the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.
Ben Gvir’s visit was illuminating, revealing glimpses of the tightrope act Netanyahu would have to walk. The visit was short and unexpected, taking place before the scheduled date. Given that the new national security minister visited but did not pray, Netanyahu has been keen to point out that Ben Gvir’s visit did not deviate from the established legal and historical status quo arrangement.
It is risky to parse the subtleties surrounding provocations in a conflict cauldron, especially at a location as famous as the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Al Aqsa mosque is regarded by Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, as their most prominent national symbol, making visits there with the sole purpose of demonstrating Israeli sovereignty very provocative. Following this line of reasoning, Netanyahu has insisted on upholding the status quo on numerous occasions. As recently as 2020, he made the following observation: “While Jewish worship at the Temple Mount seems acceptable, I know it would have ignited the Middle East… There is a bound. I won’t do some things in order to win an election.
However, ignoring the bigger picture in favour of focusing just on violent outbreaks or their sudden cessation as a gauge of a government’s ability to change the course of a conflict. The declarations of purpose regarding the West Bank and to “strengthen the status of Jerusalem” run counter to the long-standing positions of the Palestinians, the United States, and the international community about a two-state political future. In fact, the Israeli prime minister previously seemed to favour the eventuality of two states. Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community will all need to think about what happens next if this is the official announcement by Israel’s government that the two-state solution is dead.
When it appeared like he would win the election in November of last year, Netanyahu promised to form a government that would “avoid unnecessary adventures and expand the circle of peace.” It might take a lifelong tightrope walk for him to be able to keep this pledge while serving the interests of an extremist base that helped him win.
How will the incoming government impact Israel’s relations with regional actors?
Israel’s neighbours sent warnings and exercises caution even before the coalition government was finalised. Ben Gvir’s involvement in the Israeli government has alarmed Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, while King Abdullah of Jordan has long issued warnings against crossing red lines around holy sites in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a senior official from Bahrain, a partner of the Abraham Accords, declared early on that his nation would…, demonstrating the tenacity of the most recent normalisation accords.
“… uphold our understanding [with Israel] and… carry on strengthening our alliance.” Additionally, the UAE invited Ben Gvir to its national day reception in Tel Aviv as coalition discussions moved quickly forward. Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif, earlier this week, however, is an early test of how much the new government’s policies would impede the development of current relationships and the ability to build new ones.
Netanyahu’s scheduled official visit to the UAE was cancelled just hours after Ben Gvir’s arrival and a formal denunciation by the UAE. Following this, the UAE and China have called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to address concerns on the most recent developments in Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia, the “prize” of normalisation that Netanyahu craves most, joined the chorus of condemnation by calling Ben Gvir’s visit a “storming” of the Al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, Egypt and Turkey have both registered opposition, and Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Israel’s ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom to explain the provocation.
It remains to be seen how much the Israeli government’s more radical tendencies can be restrained by the vociferous denunciation coming from Arab allies. Israelis strongly support regional normalisation, but Netanyahu’s most extreme coalition allies, on whom he depends, are motivated more by their annexationist and Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif sovereignty goals than by the allure of normalisation with the Arab world or concern over international condemnation.
Netanyahu and his coalition allies are undoubtedly paying close attention to the regional reaction. For Netanyahu, the key to keeping his coalition partners in line without alienating important allies is determining how much leeway he can grant them. His allies in the coalition will be searching for chances to assure Netanyahu that his worries about a significant opposition to his plans are unfounded.
How might the new government impact U.S.-Israel relations?
The White House congratulated Netanyahu on forming the government, but did not specify any coalition members other than noting that President Biden and Netanyahu had been involved in each other’s lives for many years. While the latter is accurate, it is far from certain that a Netanyahu relying on this kind of alliance for legal salvation will be the known quantity of the past, even if it is not always an easy relationship.”The United States will continue to support the two-state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values,” the White House statement also stated. As he attempts to govern the bilateral relationship while relying on the backing of the radical base within his coalition, Netanyahu will face significant challenges related to this values debate.
The Biden administration quickly denounced as “abhorrent” Ben Gvir’s attendance at a memorial service for Meir Kahane, the radical rabbi whose Kach party—the political party that Ben Gvir leads—was once formally listed as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States. This was just a few days after Israel’s election. Democrats Senator Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concerns to Netanyahu even before the elections that the presence of radicals in a future government would be detrimental to U.S.-Israel relations.
The administration has expressed disapproval of the new government’s intentions to legalise and approve the reconstruction of a settlement in a region that the Israeli Defence Forces cleared out as part of the 2005 disengagement plan as early as this week. Additionally, it called Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif “unacceptable.”
States-Israel Naturally, relationships and evaluations of common foreign policy goals go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there are still some clear differences in these areas as well. Regarding what he believes to be a persistent interest on the part of the United States and other countries in renewing a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany), Netanyahu has been outspoken in his desire to prioritise open and forceful resistance. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has already sharply criticised Netanyahu’s administration after Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said that Israel should stop denouncing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that there will be a number of differences during the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s visit to Israel later in January. More practically, it is unclear what, if any, further form “opposing policies” that contradict or jeopardise previously presumed common interests would take, given that certain shared values and two states are plainly on the line but other shared interests are unaffected.
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