Standing next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last Monday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken could not have been more forceful in articulating that US-Israel relations is “rooted” in “shared values.” His host, who formed and leads a coalition bent on undermining those very values including by stripping the Israeli High Court of authority to protect civil and minority rights, review the constitutionality of legislation, restrain the powers of the executive branch and prevent it from acting on the West Bank in violation of international law, could not have missed the message.
Israelis who marched by the tens of thousands just two days earlier, in protest of the government’s trashing of the values enshrined in Israel’s The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel of May 1948, known popularly as the Declaration of Independence, must have been grateful for Blinken’s outspoken defense of these very values.
At the same time, however, Blinken chose to deal with both the broader Israeli-Palestinian issue and the explosive situation in Jerusalem, particularly around the Temple Mount (as it is known to Jews)/al-Haram al-Sharif (as it is known in Arabic), a site holy to billions of Muslims and millions of Jews, as though we were still in 2022.
With the new Israeli government that took office on December 29 operating on the basis of “Founding Principles,” which declared, “The Jewish People has inalienable right to an exclusive sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel” (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea), and whose members include key players determined to exercise Jewish supremacy on Temple Mount, this is not the Israel of but a few months ago.
The message of this government threatens to accelerate several processes it has not triggered, but, if unchecked, are bound to reach their explosive logical conclusion on its watch. First, a Palestinian Authority, weakened by both its failings and Israeli policy, has already lost control over major swaths of territory. Second, in those areas, Palestinian youth increasingly resort to violence, which in their view is the legitimate expression of frustration with both the inept Palestinian leadership and the Israeli occupation. Third, perceived as sub-contractors of the Israeli occupation, members of the Palestinian Security Force are no longer a symbol of a state-in-being and yield to peer pressure by refusing to put on their uniforms during moments of tension. Some even turn their weapons on Israelis.
ON THE Israeli side, emboldened by the composition of the government and its annexationist policy, West Bank settlers increasingly engage in violence against Palestinians. Likewise, with their leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir – the country’s provocateur-in-chief and Jewish supremacy advocate who was convicted for supporting terrorism – in a senior cabinet position, Temple Mount activists talk of “our moment” to impose Jewish exclusivity and do away with the age-old status quo, best codified by Netanyahu (in another era) as “Muslims pray, others visit.”
These processes constitute a prescription for an explosion awaiting the detonator. One may not be able to anticipate its timing or predict its nature and duration, but it is not likely to be confined to a two-day Gaza conflagration as in August 2022 or even an eleven-day one as in the previous year.
Agreements become policy
In conversations with colleagues in Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel a couple of years ago, as well as in Jordan and Egypt – the veteran peace partners, we hear grave concerns as Israeli coalition agreements turn into policy. All convey a concern with their countries’ ability to defend continued normalization in the face of such policies.
They even worry about their ability to shield what has already been accomplished from the effects of extremists’ provocations around Jerusalem’s holy sites and the annexation of West Bank territory accelerated in all but name. Likewise, under these conditions, Saudi interlocutors consider Netanyahu’s identifying normalization with the kingdom as a top priority as detached from reality.
And these concerns lead them – and many Israelis – to look to Washington, as the only power perceived to have the wherewithal to apply the brakes before matters get out of control.
Whether Secretary Blinken did apply those brakes during his private conversations with the Israeli counterpart or not, his public statements echoed messages applicable to a previous era, when recalling the commitment to an eventual two-state solution or expressing concern with growing belligerence on both sides were deemed adequate.
Regrettably, given the nature of the current Israeli government and its policies, this is no longer the case. The breadth and pace of destructive changes that threaten Israeli democracy and security, regional stability and other American interests, call for a far more forceful application of brakes.
Just as the prime minister was advised in no uncertain terms about Washington’s expectation that “shared values” are strictly upheld, so do his extremist coalition partners need to hear clearly that West Bank annexation by whatever means, benign response to settler violence, further undermining the PA and provocations in holy sites and elsewhere in Jerusalem are unacceptable. These open messages should be supplemented by private elaboration of the consequences should public warnings be ignored.
To be sure, the Palestinian leadership should not be spared an equally forceful articulation of US expectations.
The US administration has its plate full of domestic and global priorities. However, to use another metaphor befitting the situation: Washington’s seeming reluctance to apply timely and effective medicine to the Israeli-Palestinian situation is likely to end up with the far greater and costlier challenge of dealing with the pandemic.
Tamir Pardo is a former head of Mossad and a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS). Nimrod Novik is a former senior policy adviser to prime minister Shimon Peres, a member of CIS and Israel Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.