Netanyahu’s New Partners Waste No Time in Undermining Him

Netanyahu’s New Partners Waste No Time in Undermining Him

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The religious extremists ushered into the Israeli government by returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week wasted no time in confirming fears that they would be gleefully playing with fire. This is not simply about domestic politics: Provocations by right-wing leaders have already drawn the ire of Israel’s Arab neighbors and even President Joe Biden’s administration; they threaten to fuel Palestinian violence and undermine the Abraham Accords that normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states.

On Tuesday, the new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, paid a brief visit to a flashpoint of religious passions known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. The site includes the iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque, whose golden dome dominates the Jerusalem skyline, and the Temple Mount, believed to be the site of the Jewish Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

The visit created a flurry of criticism, but so far, thankfully, no violence. Ben-Gvir is a proud Jewish supremacist who in 2007 was found guilty by a Jerusalem court of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. He fully understands the symbolic resonance of a trip to the temple site by Israeli officials.

The Haram al-Sharif is controlled by an ancient Muslim religious trust called the Waqf. Jews, Christians and others are welcome to visit, but the Israeli rabbinate strongly discourages Jews from going there; prayer in the area is reserved for Muslims. Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, which it has occupied since 1967 and claims to have annexed in 1980, has included a commitment to maintain the “status quo” in religious lands, an agreement that was formalized by the Treaty of Berlin. of 1878. But a growing number of Israelis are determined to undo that status quo, sooner or later.

Global Muslim sensitivities arise from the fear that, ultimately, Israel will destroy the Haram al-Sharif and build a third temple. This is clearly a minority view in Israel, but it is growing and entering the cabinet.

Ben-Gvir’s visit was intended to communicate official Jewish power there. After the last such provocation, when newly installed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon staged a heavily armed march on the holy site in 2000, a wave of violent confrontations degenerated into the disastrous second Palestinian intifada. About 3,500 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, mostly civilians on both sides, were killed in the ensuing five years of fighting.

Ben-Gvir has not simply caused Palestinian anger. Jordan, which Israel recognizes as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, said it was ready to enter into “a conflict” if Israel overturned the status quo. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre warned that “any unilateral action that threatens the status quo is unacceptable.”

The United Arab Emirates, which has entered into an unprecedentedly broad partnership with Israel since the start of the 2020 Abraham Accords – and even tried to build relations with Ben-Gvir by hosting him on an embassy visit her in Tel Aviv in December – condemned his actions as “the attack on the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque”. Netanyahu was forced to postpone a long-awaited visit to the Gulf state scheduled for next week. The United Arab Emirates joined China in arranging to bring the issue before the UN Security Council in the coming days.

Netanyahu has said that normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia is one of his main goals. This was already a considerable long shot, but it only took Ben-Gvir a few days to make it even more difficult. The kingdom strongly condemned the action and is taking the matter to the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Netanyahu has promised he can rein in his fundamentalist coalition partners, but all he could do in this case was persuade Ben-Gvir to keep the visit short and the time under wraps. It was likely just an early taste of the provocations ahead. The goal of other US and Israeli partners, including the United Arab Emirates, should be to persuade Netanyahu to reconsider the price he paid to form a government and try to form a new coalition with less radical figures like former Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu is clearly uncomfortable with new political allies so far to his right; Last month he reportedly told Ben-Gvir to “calm down”. But such extremists cannot be controlled. They can only be hidden or removed. And their removal is what Netanyahu – and if not him, then the Israeli public – must do to avoid another outbreak of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories and perhaps a rupture in Israel’s nascent ties to the Arab world.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Is Iran on the verge of another revolution?: Bobby Ghosh

• The US and Saudi Arabia have left their rift behind: Husein Ibish

• A Democratic Iran Is Coming and Will Rule the Middle East: Robert D. Kaplan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow in residence at the Gulf Arab States Institute in Washington.

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