Netanyahu wastes no time showing who’s boss - analysis

Netanyahu's first week in office has led to the UN Security Council convening a special meeting to publicly attack Israel, and the US joining in.

  Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations Security Council debate. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations Security Council debate.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu less than a week in office to place himself in the diplomatic hot seat against the international community and the US.

When one has been in power for 15 years and then returns after a brief hiatus, for a 16th year, it turns out the honeymoon period lasts about a second, if that.

Allies in Europe and the Middle East warmly welcomed him back but then issued warnings and condemnations.

In less than a week, the United Nations Security Council convened a special meeting to publicly attack Israel, and the United States, a staunch ally, also said Netanyahu’s actions were “unacceptable.”

The Biden administration didn’t mince words. It publicly stated that it held Netanyahu responsible for the actions of his new government. Just in case there was any doubt.

 Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations Security Council debate. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations Security Council debate. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Everyone can skip the niceties because they know Netanyahu and he knows them.

But one could argue that Netanyahu is the most well-known and least understood of Israel’s diplomats. He is a leader with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde profile, depending on where he stands on the political map.

The Israeli Right has long waited for Netanyahu to stop with the Western diplomatic niceties, unfurl his true colors and show that he is a faithful patriot of the Land of Israel, holding fast to Jewish values including strengthening Israel’s hold on the Temple Mount and Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank.

Western allies were struck precisely by Netanyahu’s American diplomatic speaking style, his advanced technological and economic powers, and his eloquent portrayal of Israel as the Middle East’s sole democracy.

Netanyahu has during his past five governments walked a diplomatic tightrope in which he alternated between both faces. At all moments he appears to be a constrained, cautious, pragmatic diplomat who knows when to bend and when to move forward. He hugged the Center and supported moderate steps in a right-wing direction while maintaining relations with Israel’s allies and expanding the circle of those with strong ties to the Jewish state.

He has shaken hands with former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, divided Hebron, supported a demilitarized Palestinian state and imposed a 10-month moratorium on new settlement housing starts. The massive West Bank E1 settler housing project has yet to be built and annexation was suspended in favor of four normalization deals with Arab nations. Netanyahu entered office in 2009 and left in 2021, without any mass legalization of West Bank outposts.

Netanyahu’s ability to create coalitions among parties with competing agendas often helped cement him in the past as the government’s center and helped him avoid diplomatic flare-ups.

It seemed illogical, therefore, that this current “fully Right” government, for which he campaigned, could actually operate without an immediate crisis given that it is at odds with a number of global demands on Israel.

How is this government working out diplomatically?

The coalition agreements, which he signed, clearly set him on an immediate collision course with his Western allies, chief among the US, to say nothing of the American Jewish community.

One imagined, therefore, that there would be an initial period of calm, then the testing of the political waters, a coalition crisis, and then a compromise that was achieved.

But this week it became clear that this government would not be marked by constraint as it threw caution to the wind in critical arenas.

Domestically, Netanyahu’s government proposed sweeping judicial reforms, which Justice Minister Yariv Levin argued restored balance to Israel’s governing system, while they raised domestic and international concern that the judiciary’s independence had been weakened.

The state indicated to the High Court of Justice that it intended to abide by its coalition promise to authorize the Homesh yeshiva and to rebuild the settlement that had been destroyed on the northern Samaria hilltop during the 2005 Disengagement. It was a strong indication that Netanyahu also planned to hold fast to his coalition promise for a government declaration in support of authorizing all the illegal outposts.

Then there were IDF plans to move forward on relocating a thousand Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills who live in the midst of an army firing zone.

But perhaps the most indicative move was his support for National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s 13-minute visit to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, which is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and is the third holiest site in Islam.

That Ben-Gvir wanted to visit the site was expected. Ben-Gvir believes the status quo on the site should be changed to allow for Jewish prayer there and that it is important to clarify that Israel has sovereignty over such a critical historical and religious Jewish site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

What was surprising was Netanyahu’s backing of Ben-Gvir’s visit, particularly so soon after his government was sworn in.

Why was Ben-Gvir's Temple Mount visit so significant?

Netanyahu and his government believe that Ben-Gvir’s visit falls within the existing status quo, which allows for visitors but prohibits Jewish prayer at the site. But Netanyahu must have understood that the move would be viewed internationally as provocative and could set off a diplomatic storm or a wave of violence.

It had almost immediate consequences, with the United Arab Emirates reportedly delaying a celebratory visit there by Netanyahu, to say nothing of the Security Council meeting late Thursday night.

But it did more than that. It placed the question of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem including the Temple Mount back on the international agenda.

The series of defiant moves seems unlike Netanyahu and appears to indicate that he will act differently in this government than he has been in the past.

The cautious approach seems to have vanished. Rather than battling his coalition partners, he appears to be standing with them.

At issue, in particular, is Israel’s relationship with the US, which opposes steps it believes to be antidemocratic and that create tension with the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu gave a speech at the Global Betar Movement’s Jabotinsky Conference, in which he laid out what could be his new doctrine. Netanyahu did so at the event, named for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the founders of modern Zionism whose philosophy laid the foundation for the prime minister’s own political ideology and who is his spiritual mentor.

Jabotinsky swam against the tide. He was not deterred by his many detractors, and history has proven that he was correct, Netanyahu explained.

This government, he said, will similarly not be afraid to speak its truth and uphold the interest of the Jewish people. It will be a government of action and will revise Israel’s foreign relationships.

“We will carry out a revision in foreign relations; our voice will be heard in the world. Instead of bowing our heads and giving in to dictates from the international community, we will proudly uphold our interests in the State of Israel and the Land of Israel,” he explained.

Israel has to have an “iron wall” not just with respect to its security and economy but also its ideology.

In this region, he said, the weak are dismissed and only the strong are taken into account. Only those who are “strong” can finalize agreements, and it is with those who are strong that peace is made.

Netanyahu has long held that power is a critical commodity for Israel in the diplomatic arena. When it came to Iran, he has been willing to take deep international risks.

But this is the first time he has been so willing to take so many diplomatic and domestic risks in so many areas all at once.

Netanyahu’s words on Wednesday night sounded bold and they certainly explained the events of the past week, in which he showed a new and stronger political face.

This week is likely to be just the start of what will likely be a string of political and diplomatic storms. His allies on the Right have long argued that change can only come by throwing diplomatic caution to the wind.

Netanyahu now appears to be willing to go head-to-head with the world, thereby testing whether a country the size of Israel can truly assert such independence without damaging its alliances.