Israel’s Divided Government, the Palestinians, and the US

by May 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 14, 2023. Photo credit: Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via REUTERS

The November 2022 elections in Israel gave the present coalition a clear majority of 64 out of 120 members of the Knesset. The coalition intended to produce a government with a firm rightwing ideological orientation. At long last, Likud party loyalists cheered, we don’t need to compromise with centrist or left-leaning partners. 

>>  Insight from Israel: Read more from Eran Lerman

In actual practice, and specifically on policy towards the Palestinians, the government appears to be deeply divided between two camps – radical and pragmatist – with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu being pulled in both directions and trying to sustain a balance.

  1. The radical camp is led by Minister of National Security (who oversees internal security) Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.  As they see it, the decisive election result entitles them to pursue their plans, not only for judicial reform but also regarding the future of the Palestinians. Indeed, they see the two as interrelated, since they consider the present Supreme Court to be a “leftist” hindrance to their wider plans. Ultimately, they seek to undo the Oslo process, block the path to Palestinian statehood, and re-open to Jewish settlement the areas in the West Bank (and maybe even in Gaza) from which Israel disengaged in 2005. Hence Smotrich’s assertion, in a speech in Paris, that there is no Palestinian people – to him, a fiction aimed at delegitimizing Israel – and thus they are not entitled to self-determination. 
  2. The more pragmatic wing within the government, attentive to the views of the defense establishment, prefers conflict management over the triumphalist tendencies of the hard right. This should not be interpreted as a hope for peace with the Palestinians anytime soon. The defense establishment seeks to contain the danger of escalation and to avoid actions which would undermine Israel’s standing regionally and globally, given the broader challenges it faces – above all, from Iran. With these priorities in mind, Israel’s Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant publicly urged the Prime Minister to halt the judicial reform: other Likud ministers feel the same way, but carefully avoid alienating Netanyahu or the firebrands. 

The Biden administration is not a passive onlooker in this internal tug-of-war. As violence between the Palestinians and Israel kept escalating in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the US actively promoted the creation of a new diplomatic framework –  the Aqaba meeting, launched on 26 February 2023 at Jordan’s Red Sea resort town (not to be confused with the Aqaba process on global responses to terrorism, initiated by Jordan in 2015). The Israeli side was led by National Security Adviser Tzahi Hanegbi, an experienced political hand with direct personal access to Netanyahu, accompanied by the Head of the Shin Bet Ronen Bar (Israel’s internal security service) and other senior officials; the Palestinian Authority was represented at the level of the General Intelligence Services, Majed Faraj. Also in attendance were Faraj’s Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, and a US mission led by the National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett NcGurk.   

The language of the March 26 joint communique affirmed all previous agreements with respect to Palestinians, mentioned the quest for “a just and lasting peace,” recognized the importance of the status quo in the holy sites in Jerusalem – and outlined a moratorium of a few months on unilateral Israeli government actions, including new settlement  activity and the authorization of existing “outposts.” The willingness of Prime Minister Netanyahu to authorize such a text seemed to indicate that he has not been entirely captured by the radicals in his coalition. 

Under pressure from the right, however, the PM’s office hastened to deny that Israel had agreed to any moratorium. Ben-Gvir suggested in public that what was said in Aqaba stays in Aqaba – that is to say, does not oblige Israel – generating, or indeed confirming, the distinct impression of a government divided upon itself

This impression of indecision lingered even after Netanyahu authorized Hanegbi to lead a delegation to a follow-up meeting hosted this time by Egypt at Sharm al-Sheikh (19 March 2023) – once again affirming the terms agreed in Aqaba, with the evident hope of reducing tensions in the month of Ramadan. Once again, the language drawn up by the US spoke of “a way forward” towards peace, while also affirming the PA’s role and obligation to restore order and curb terror activity in the areas under its control. 

Palestinian groups – some local in nature, like “Lion’s Den” in Nablus, and others linked to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad – continued to carry out armed attacks.  For instance – on the day of the Aqaba meeting, two Israeli brothers driving through the West Bank town of Huwarrah were shot and killed, which led to a violent retaliatory attack by settlers, setting parts of the town to the torch. Some voices from within the governing coalition lent support to the acts of vengeance: Huwarrah, said Smotrich, should be wiped out. Again and again, the  radical ministers seemed to ignore or defy what had been agreed in Aqaba and then in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

All this added to Washington’s anger, dismay, and pressure on Netanyahu. It also led to tensions with Israel’s partners in the region. The Prime Minister’s planned visit to the UAE was put off.  The ministerial-level meeting of the “Negev Forum” (with the US Secretary of State as well as the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain) has been rescheduled again and again, and seems unlikely to take place in Morocco in May. To reverse these troubling trends, and to prove that he has not been captured by his hard right partners, Netanyahu took actions designed to show some disdain towards their positions and conduct. 

This difference of perspectives was demonstrated by a decision on another sensitive issue: visits by Jews on the Temple Mount/ Al-Haram al-Sharif on the seventh day of Passover, which this year coincided with the last days of Ramadan (a sensitive period in which the Israeli police traditionally prevents such visits). Netanyahu again ruled in favor of the position presented by the security professionals – specifically,  Shin Bet – banning visits on that day, against the view put forward by Ben-Gvir. The latter, an ardent advocate of Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, did not hide his dismay. 

The Israeli military reaction to the security challenges has been generally careful and measured. Recent airstrikes in both Lebanon and Gaza, in response to missile attacks, seemed designed to avoid the loss of life that would have led to a cycle of revenge attacks and escalation.  Then, in the early hours of 9 May 2023, the Israeli Air Force struck and killed three senior commanders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in their homes in Gaza, along with 10 Gazan civilians sparking the latest round of missile attacks. Ben-Gvir was kept in the dark, for fear of leaks: but he was nevertheless quick to endorse and praise the operation and use the opportunity to heal the rift with Netanyahu. 

The Biden administration may be looking for positive ways to weigh in, rewarding what they see as responsible conduct by the pragmatic wing of the government. But it remains to be seen whether this would impact the coalition’s internal balance. More tests lie ahead, from the budget – which must pass by the end of May or else the government must disband and go to new elections – to the law on exemptions from the draft for ultra-Orthodox young men. For now all of the coalition partners have a good reason to stick together: the opinion polls consistently show them going down to a bad defeat if elections were to be held in the near future. But their divisions over the Palestinian questions will not go away. 

>>  Insight from Israel: Read more from Eran Lerman

Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman
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