The new paradigm in the Middle East, is Israel losing focus? - opinion

The election of Ben Gvir to national office sends the wrong signal to Arab states who are willing to normalize relations.

 Israeli minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir at a  press conference with Israeli Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai (unseen) at the Ministry of National Security in Jerusalem, on January 24, 2023.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israeli minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir at a press conference with Israeli Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai (unseen) at the Ministry of National Security in Jerusalem, on January 24, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The political and security scene between the Israelis and Palestinians was dealt a severe blow over Ramadan and Passover, during which there were several casualties on both sides. The strain was drastically boosted, expanding to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza. However, the recent decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ban Jews from entering al-Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount) during the last 10 days of Ramadan did little to de-escalate tensions with the Palestinians.

Undoubtedly, if we elucidate what happened during Ramadan and Passover, we must focus on the crux of the dilemma that Israel is experiencing with far-Right officials. Clashes during Ramadan are not new at all, but having ministers whose incitements escalate the situation is certainly unique and should be taken very seriously.

When we talk about segments of the government who are keen on creating a wonky atmosphere through their positions and media statements, an inappropriate message is sent that there is a kind of alternative approach inside the government when dealing with cases that are internationally historic and crucial.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was believed when he said he would restrain the security situation through his ministry and for whom the Israeli people voted, was the reason for the situation booming and opening two fronts at the same time in Gaza and Lebanon. Now, the question for our Israeli friends who voted for him is, did he accomplish what you wanted?

The escalation was not confined to rockets or Israeli police clashes with Palestinians; it extended to other parts of the West Bank, with a different type of operation based on individual assault. We witnessed the killing of two British Israeli sisters and their mother by a Palestinian gunman near the Hamra settlement north of the Jordan Valley.

 An Israeli border police officer aims his weapon at Palestinian demonstrators protesting against Israeli settlements near Nablus in the West Bank, April 10, 2023. (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS) An Israeli border police officer aims his weapon at Palestinian demonstrators protesting against Israeli settlements near Nablus in the West Bank, April 10, 2023. (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)

Now, the message is clear. Extensive escalation might indeed lead to blasting all the fronts, which will bring back the intifada scenes that nobody wants to see again. Forming a new National Guard under the leadership of Ben-Gvir will definitely raise the likelihood of laying the groundwork for new confrontations that will lead to more casualties.

Israeli Revolutionary Guard? No, thanks!

HENCE, THE contradictions and complexity of the roles and powers of the security institutions inside Israel might be added to the complexity of the Israeli political system that is now suffering from the judicial reform plan the current government is willing to implement. The essential message here is that nobody wants to see another Iranian Revolutionary Guard, but with an Israeli flavor.

Ceasing military clashes with the Palestinians is imperative for any move to stabilize the security dilemma in Israel, not vice versa. If we examine the last eleven years, we will see that the clashes escalated hugely in years such as 2012, 2014, 2019 and 2021. That is in addition to the minor confrontations that have been popping up every year, the last one being this Ramadan, with limited rockets used by both sides.

For the record, these clashes did not mitigate the security dilemma at all. However, they definitely brought more extremist officials into power to bring back stability and stop the bloodshed among Israelis. Again, unfortunately, that did not happen. The Iron Dome did indeed safeguard Israeli territories from the rockets of Hamas, Jihad and other groups categorized as enemies of Israel.

However, the new approaches that those groups have utilized are reminiscent of the tactics used in the second intifada, such as individual operations, which will eventually lead us to a hectic situation that will be difficult to control. Arresting a significant number of Palestinians to confront these types of threats is not logical or feasible, especially since it will foster more hatred and desire for revenge among Palestinian families and subsequent generations, which is natural, understandable human behavior.

Now, what is the alternative? To date, we have not seen a move to absorb people’s infuriation peacefully. We have not seen any initiative – without accepting international help – to solve the problems in a way that maximizes the interests of both sides and enhances stability and security. Thus, there should be a solid initiative to change behaviors by opening up a new means of communication based on trust, logical solutions and risk-taking to stand against the far-right rhetoric.

Stopping the use of hard power, respecting each other’s religions, guaranteeing economic benefits that reflect positively on people’s lives and putting the political solution for the main Israeli–Palestinian crisis – considered the longest in the history of the Middle East – will prevent further casualties among Israelis and Palestinians and enable a flourishing future for upcoming generations.

Americans pivot towards Asia

WHAT ISRAELI politicians are missing or misreading is the new shifts in the big powers’ relationship with the Middle East. The role that China has begun to play, the new approach of the Gulf countries to embrace Iran and the hesitation in American foreign policy toward the region are signaling the possibility of new dynamics in international relations in the Middle East.

The US’s pivot to Asia is reflected in the behavior of its partners in the region. They have undertaken new approaches at a very fast pace to enhance and preserve their interests, whether or not they contradicted American interests. Churchill’s remark truly translates into the contemporary Middle East: “There are no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests.” His statement is evidenced in the shifts in relations between Middle Eastern countries.

Unfortunately, what the Israelis are doing is returning the region to its previous image, which has historically done nothing but arouse hatred and enmity toward the Israelis. Instead of waiting and evaluating the new approach toward crises in the surrounding countries, we are seeing a reaction policy that does not represent any strategic vision to enhance Israeli interests in the long run.

Israelis showed how keen they were to expand their relations with Arab countries. However, some current Israeli ministers are sending the wrong message, along the lines that Israel is not interested in cooperating and initiating relations with Arab countries. Hence, the ball is in Netanyahu’s court to lead his coalition’s behavior with respect to the new approach Middle Eastern countries are pushing for in order to create a new political atmosphere based on enhancing mutual interests.

Pivoting to Asia is a new reality with which the world is living. Understanding how to deal with it through a calculated approach is crucial for securing any country’s interests. Israel must think of this, too. Its relations with the US are non-negotiable; however, it should also be understood that the US might no longer be a door for Israel to Arab countries. Thus, Israel should be ready to think of new ways to connect and initiate direct relations with all Arab countries.

Hybrid alliances and partnerships will be the theme of international relations in the Middle East, which means it is in the hands of Israel whether it wants to bring its bad image with Palestinians to the fore or wants to align with the emerging dynamics in the Middle East.

Israel would need to find a new route to convince Middle Eastern countries of its intentions, not confining the need to start relations with it to the threats of Iran that could be erased in the future if the new current Middle Eastern approach was systematically pursued.

The writer is a senior researcher in Israeli affairs at TRENDS Research and Advisory.