'We used to think he was in the background pulling levers'

EU diplomats: We’re surprised by Netanyahu’s lack of coalition control

European officials in Israel expected premier to have more influence over far-right, will meet Wednesday to discuss rising violence, but not all see situation as particularly dire

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

European diplomats are surprised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived inability to rein in his far-right coalition partners, officials from several countries told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“We used to think Netanyahu was in the background pulling levers,” said one European Union official. “We don’t see the control behind the scenes that he led us to believe he has.”

The official highlighted the power Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have in the government.

“We might not quite have appreciated the control and influence Ben Gvir and Smotrich might have over him,” the official said.

Netanyahu returned to power in December, relying on far-right and religious allies to form a coalition. He did not bring any centrist parties on board, giving his right flank significant freedom and power in the coalition, since he needs every party to remain in the government to retain his majority in the Knesset.

The European diplomats’ comments come after a sharp rise in deadly violence in the West Bank, during which hardline lawmakers rebelled openly against Netanyahu’s policies and his attempts to lower the flames.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset on February 27, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Hours after a shooting attack in Huwara on Sunday that killed brothers Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, from the settlement of Har Bracha, hundreds of extremist settlers descended on the Palestinian town in the northern West Bank and set fire to homes, storefronts and cars. One Palestinian man was killed and dozens injured in the rampage.

The next day, American-Israeli citizen Elan Ganeles was shot dead in a terrorist attack near Jericho while he was on the way to a friend’s wedding outside Jerusalem.

On Sunday, ahead of the attack that killed the Yaniv brothers, Netanyahu sent his National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar to the Jordanian city of Aqaba for a summit with Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the US. Though the parties emerged from the meeting with a  joint communique about de-escalation ahead of Ramadan, both Smotrich and Ben Gvir disputed the outcome.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a shooting attack at the Bet Ha’Arava Junction, near Jericho in the West Bank, February 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Smotrich tweeted that he “has no clue” what was said at the “unnecessary summit” in Jordan.

“What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan,” concurred Ben Gvir.

Ben Gvir and his far-right Otzma Yehudit faction also boycotted a Knesset plenum session called by the opposition that Netanyahu was required to attend. A Likud spokesman slammed Ben Gvir and his party for not attending the session, saying their absence was “an irresponsible act against a right-wing government.”

In announcing the move to boycott, the Otzma Yehudit accused Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of “tolerating” Palestinian terrorism and of carrying out policies without coordinating with the party.

“It appears there is less control than we first thought,” a second diplomat said Tuesday. “The policies and the rhetoric are accelerating negative trends.”

“Netanyahu, who built his whole campaign on restoring security, is now witnessing the security situation get out of his hands,” said a third European official.

“There’s a general feeling that more extremist members of the coalition unleashed a certain feeling of immunity within the most radical settler communities,” he said.

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 27, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The diplomats’ statements echo accusations made by opposition leader Yair Lapid at a faction meeting Monday.

Ben Gvir “has one policy, Smotrich, the political arm of the [radical settler] hilltop youth, has a second policy,” he said, while “Gallant has a third policy and Netanyahu is weak and unable to put them in their place.”

But not all European diplomats share the same sense of alarm.

“We are confident that the prime minister can personally handle the situation,” a fourth official said. “I don’t feel the current situation is out of the average level of tension.”

The official added that EU diplomats tend to magnify ongoing tensions because of political bias against Netanyahu.

The diplomats indicated that they are not proactively looking to engage with Ben Gvir or Smotrich. Instead, they look to speak with Gallant, Hanegbi, Foreign Ministry officials, and the IDF. “They are all rational and responsible human beings,” explained one of the officials.

Then-Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi in Gush Etzion in the West Bank, December 24, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The Europeans are keeping the coalition’s policies and statements on West Bank violence separate in their minds from any concerns over the government’s judicial overhaul effort.

Unlike the US, the diplomats stationed in Israel are largely refraining from commenting. However, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly voiced her concerns Tuesday, saying that “the values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence.”

In the wake of the spiraling violence, EU ambassadors in Israel are meeting Wednesday at the EU mission in Ramat Gan.

Settlers pray the evening service, as cars and homes they torched burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

No major announcement is expected to emerge from the meeting, but the EU will continue to communicate the need for accountability for those who commit violence, one of the diplomats said.

“Statements are fine,” said the official. “Actions are even better when it comes to holding these people accountable.”

An EU statement on Tuesday called for the protection of civilians and immediate steps toward de-escalation.

Still, the European officials acknowledged the limits of the influence they and other outside parties wield over events on the ground.

“The main takeaway of the last days, no matter how hard diplomatic efforts to recreate a horizon, the reality of the ground always tops and sometimes topples the diplomatic efforts,” said one of the diplomats.

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