As 2022 came to a close, Benjamin Netanyahu once again took the helm of Israel’s government just 18 months after losing power in the wake of a series of stalemated elections. Already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu’s approach to foreign policy, and to the conflict with and occupation of the Palestinians, is to some extent a known quantity. However, with his comeback and governing coalition dependent on the support and partnership of once-fringe extremist parties and politicians, 2023 holds the potential for conflict-driving disruption. USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen discusses the possible implications of Israel’s new government for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for Israel’s regional and foreign relations.
What does the new government portend for the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation and diplomatic progress toward a resolution?
From a near-term conflict resolution perspective, the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a political settlement and an end of occupation has long been remote — a function of both Israeli and Palestinian sociopolitical dynamics and policies. It’s unlikely there will be a radical departure from that status quo. From the perspective of conflict drivers, risk of deteriorating dynamics on the ground, and the irrevocable end to a realistic two-state vision, we are at a dangerous inflection point.
This is the most right-wing and extreme government in Israel’s history. It has already brought Israelis to the streets in protest and prompted strong statements of concern from former Israeli diplomatic and security officials. Even the current chief of staff of Israel’s Defense Forces has weighed in with security concerns. This is no mere speculative handwringing. Those in senior positions have been explicit in word, and deed, about their positions and intentions vis-a-vis the “Palestinian issue.”
If Prime Minister Netanyahu has in the past flirted with commitment to a two-state future, the opening paragraph of the government’s guidelines document — a non-legally binding but public expression of priorities — leaves no room for ambivalence: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.” The document further includes a commitment to promoting and developing settlement accordingly, to explicitly include the West Bank.
This has long been the unequivocal position of certain senior members of the new government. Chief among these personalities are Itamar Ben Gvir, a routine provocateur and a convicted supporter of terror and inciter of racism against Palestinians, and Bezalel Smotrich who has consistently called for territorial expansion and Palestinian Arab expulsion. Ben Gvir is now national security minister, a newly defined role that gives him policy- and priority-setting power over Israel’s police operating within Israel, and also a border police unit that operates within the West Bank. Smotrich will be a minister within the Ministry of Defense with authority over policy related to Israeli settlements. Already, coalition agreements have been inked to legalize settlements previously illegal under Israel’s own law, and to commit to annexation of the West Bank, albeit on no clearly stipulated timeline. Beyond, the proposal by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to overhaul the justice system, if enacted, would include an override clause effectively removing any check on legislative action. Among other interests, this would serve the agenda of those in the governing majority who wish to pursue retroactive legalization of settlements or other steps in the West Bank, such as demolitions, upon which the courts have previously served as a restraint.
The dangerous implications for the future prospects of resolving the conflict, for Jerusalem flashpoints, for West Bank fragility and for Jewish-Arab citizen relations within the state can’t be overstated. The latter are still nursing wounds from the intercommunal violence of May 2021. Ironically, the violence and residual sense of insecurity among many Israelis from that time did much to boost Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party’s standing in the elections. This is the case even as, in May 2021, Israel’s chief of police, Kobi Shabtai, explicitly accused Ben Gvir of serving as a catalyst for the deadly unrest that fanned the flames of such insecurity.
For those relying on Netanyahu’s historically cautious foreign policy approach to curb and control the demands and instincts of his coalition’s most extreme flank, the early signs, including the ministerial appointments, are not promising. They underscore the extent to which Netanyahu feels beholden to these forces for his political and legal survival, hoping his coalition partners will agree to legislation that will effectively vacate his ongoing corruption trial. Swiftly on the heels of the government’s swearing in, and in the face of warnings from the United States, the international community, and Israel’s own security establishment, Ben Gvir chose to message his long-stated position that “Israel is the owner of the Temple Mount” by paying a heavily secured visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Ben Gvir’s visit was instructive, showing signs of how Netanyahu will have to manage a high-wire balancing act. The visit was brief and conducted on surprise timing prior to the expected date. Netanyahu has been eager to note that Ben Gvir’s visit was not a departure from the legal and historical status quo arrangement since the new national security minister visited, but didn’t pray.
Parsing technicalities surrounding provocations in a conflict cauldron is a dangerous game, particularly at a site as storied a flashpoint as the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. For Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, Al Aqsa mosque is considered their most powerful national symbol, making visits expressly intended to display Israeli sovereignty a potent provocation. It is in this vein that Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted on maintaining the status quo, as recently as 2020 noting that “Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, though it sounds like a reasonable thing, I know it would have ignited the Middle East … There’s a limit. There are things that I’m not willing to do to win an election.”
But to focus on violent outbreaks or their immediate-term absence as the measure of a government’s capacity to impact the conflict trajectory is to miss the broader point. The statements of intent toward the West Bank and to “strengthen the status of Jerusalem,” are in direct contradiction to the long-standing Palestinian, U.S. and international community position on a two-state political horizon. Indeed, two states is an end goal that the Israeli prime minister once ostensibly supported. If this is Israel’s government formally pronouncing the death of a two-state option, Israelis, Palestinians and the international community alike will be obliged to consider what comes next.
Last November, when his electoral victory seemed assured, Netanyahu pledged that he would lead a government that would “avoid unnecessary adventures and expand the circle of peace.” His ability to fulfill this promise while answering to the interests of an extremist base that enabled his victory may well require the tightrope walk of a lifetime.
How will the incoming government impact Israel’s relations with regional actors?
Even prior to the consummation of the coalition government, Israel’s regional partners sounded notes of warning and caution. The UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, expressed worries about Ben Gvir being part of Israel’s government, and Jordan’s King Abdullah has long been warning against crossing red lines around Jerusalem holy sites. That said, in a sign of the resilience of the newest normalization agreements, a senior official from Abraham Accords partner Bahrain stated early on that his country would “… stick to our agreement [with Israel] and … continue building our partnership together.” And as coalition negotiations proceeded apace, the UAE invited Ben Gvir to its national day reception in Tel Aviv. However, Ben Gvir’s visit earlier this week to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is an early test of the extent to which the nature of the new government will put a damper on the pace at which existing relations can develop, and new relations can be forged.
Within hours of Ben Gvir’s visit and a UAE condemnation, Netanyahu’s planned upcoming official visit to the UAE was postponed. Subsequently, the UAE has joined with China in calling for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss concerns over these latest Jerusalem developments. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Israel’s ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom to explain the provocation, Egypt and Turkey have both registered objection, and Saudi Arabia, the normalization “prize” Netanyahu most seeks, joined the chorus of condemnation in characterizing Ben Gvir’s visit as a “storming” of the Al-Aqsa.
The extent to which this vocal condemnation from Arab partners can serve to rein in the more extreme impulses of the Israeli government remains to be seen. Normalization with the Arab world is deeply popular among Israelis, but Netanyahu’s most extreme coalition partners on whom he relies are driven more by their annexationist and Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif sovereignty goals than by the lure of regional normalization or fear of the international community’s condemnation. For sure, Netanyahu and his coalition partners are carefully listening to the regional response. For Netanyahu, it’s a matter of how much freedom of action he can give his coalition partners to keep them in the fold while not alienating key allies. For his coalition partners, they will be looking for opportunities to tell Netanyahu that his concerns about meaningful backlash to their agenda are overblown.
How might the new government impact U.S.-Israel relations?
In its statement congratulating Netanyahu on his formation of the government, the White House chose to ignore reference to any members of the coalition, beyond mentioning that President Biden and Netanyahu have a decades-long history of engagement with each other. The latter is true, but even while not always an easy relationship, it is far from certain that a Netanyahu dependent for legal salvation on this type of coalition will be the known quantity of the past. The White House statement likewise included mention that "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." This question of values will create no small headache for Netanyahu as he seeks to manage the bilateral relationship while dependent on the support of the extremist base in his coalition.
Within days of Israel’s election, the Biden administration found itself denouncing as “abhorrent” Ben Gvir’s attendance at a memorial ceremony for Meir Kahane, the extremist rabbi whose Kach party (the ideological progenitor of Ben Gvir’s political party) was once formally on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Even prior to the elections, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, had voiced concerns to Netanyahu that the inclusion of extremists in a future government could harm U.S.-Israel relations. Already this week, the administration has registered opposition to the new government’s plans to legalize and authorize a rebuilt settlement in an area vacated by the Israeli Defense Forces as part of the 2005 disengagement plan. It has also referred to Ben Gvir’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount as “unacceptable”.
U.S.-Israel relations and assessments of shared foreign policy interests of course extend beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but here too some disagreements are apparent. Netanyahu has been vocal about his plan to prioritize strong and open opposition to what he deems an ongoing U.S. and international interest in reviving a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States; plus Germany). Netanyahu’s government has also already drawn sharp condemnation from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who bristled at the statement by Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, that Israel should step back from condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
We can therefore certainly expect that when U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visits Israel later in January, closed door conversations will register a series of disagreements. More tangibly, with certain shared values and two states very clearly on the line, but other shared interests intact, it remains to be seen what, if any, additional form “opposing policies” that contradict or endanger once-assumed shared interests will take.