Inside story'Perception abroad is that Netanyahu doesn't have control'

Invites for Netanyahu to visit US, UAE on hold as discomfort with government grows

Negev Forum summit in Morocco also in limbo as regional capitals wait to see how Ramadan will pan out, though few are optimistic following latest settlement expansion announcements

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)

It is no secret that since returning to office on December 29, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had his sights set on securing an elusive normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Even while forming a government with some of the most right-wing parties in Israeli history, the Likud leader crafted coalition agreements in a manner that he hoped would preserve enough maneuverability and veto power over his hardline partners to allow him to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with the staunchly Palestinian-sympathizing Saudis.

However, clinching the “crown jewel” of normalization agreements will also require a significant assist from Washington, which will not only have to serve as broker but likely have to offer some skin of its own in the form of military technology that it has been increasingly loath to sell the Gulf regime. What’s more, Netanyahu will need to maintain and build on the ties with existing Abraham Accords countries in order to maintain the normalization trend.

Recognizing that the road to Riyadh runs through Washington and Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu has sought to secure invitations to visit the latter two capitals during the early days of this, his sixth term in office.

The US and the UAE may well have been eager to get off on the right foot with the new government, but that goodwill appears to be quickly dissipating as the coalition’s most right-wing partners, not Netanyahu, seem more and more to be dictating the tone in the government’s policy beyond the Green Line.

In light of those developments, a US official and a Middle Eastern diplomat told The Times of Israel Wednesday that plans to host Netanyahu have been placed on the back burner. The two sources said that the respective governments are waiting to see what unfolds on the ground during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in late March, before proceeding with plans to roll out the red carpet for an Israeli prime minister whose government has advanced measures in East Jerusalem and the West Bank that they fear will further inflame tensions with the Palestinians, in addition to being unpalatable for their own domestic audiences.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in Tel Aviv on September 16, 2022. (Benjamin Netanyahu/Twitter)

Beyond scuttling Netanyahu’s travel plans, steps taken by the new government have also slowed the momentum of the Negev Forum, which was established to build on the Abraham Accords by advancing regional projects across a variety of sectors. While Morocco had been expected to host the forum’s second-ever ministerial gathering next month, Rabat is similarly holding off on setting a date for the conference, the US official and the Middle Eastern diplomat revealed.

“Netanyahu says he’s the one running things, but the perception in capitals abroad is that he doesn’t have full control, and that makes it harder to engage with Israel at this time,” the Middle East diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

How Ben Gvir’s visit cost Netanyahu his

Netanyahu’s troubles began less than a week after he returned to the premiership, when far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — who has long campaigned on upending the fragile status quo at the Temple Mount in order to allow Jewish prayer there — paid a visit to the compound, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary as well as being Judaism’s holiest site. His 13-minute lap sparked a flood of international condemnations, including from the US, Israel’s closest ally, and one of its newest allies, the UAE.

Abu Dhabi lambasted Ben Gvir’s “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard” and called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.” It also co-submitted the request that led to an emergency gathering of the Security Council, further escalating the issue on the international stage.

Netanyahu, who had been in talks to visit the UAE that very next week, insisted that Israel was committed to preserving the Temple Mount status quo, but the Emiratis postponed his visit, citing scheduling problems. The Middle East diplomat who spoke with The Times of Israel confirmed that Ben Gvir’s actions were what spurred the postponement of the visit.

“A decision was made to slow down the public engagement,” the diplomat said, though weeks earlier, the UAE’s ambassador to Israel had been photographed embracing Ben Gvir at an event hosted by the Emirati embassy.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides led the Biden administration’s reaction to the national security minister’s Temple Mount visit, calling it “unacceptable” in a statement shortly after Ben Gvir descended from the holy site.

“We weren’t supportive of that visit, given the context,” Nides later told The Times of Israel.

Trying to stop the bleeding

That early anger hasn’t kept the Biden administration from engaging with the new government. By the end of his first month in office, Netanyahu had hosted both White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for high-level visits.

The administration assessed that face-to-face meetings with the leadership in Jerusalem and Ramallah would be critical for keeping a lid on escalating violence, particularly as Ramadan approaches.

Since the beginning of 2023, 11 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks in Jerusalem. Over that same period, 48 Palestinians were killed — most in clashes with Israeli troops, though some were unarmed civilians caught in the line of fire and one was allegedly shot dead by a settler last week.

Blinken directed Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to stay behind after he left the region late last month in order to see to it that the sides implement a series of US-backed steps aimed at restoring calm.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint press appearance on January 30, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Ronaldo Schemidt, via AFP)

The two senior administration officials returned to Washington at the beginning of the month, hoping they had done enough to convince the sides to at least temporarily hold off on steps on the ground or at the United Nations that might further exacerbate tensions.

Combating terror with construction

But then came the car-ramming by a Palestinian terrorist that killed three Israelis, including 6- and 8-year-old brothers, last Friday. Ben Gvir and fellow far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich led the overwhelming demand from coalition lawmakers that Israel further entrench its presence beyond the Green Line in response to the attack.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the legalization of nine West Bank outposts and authorized the advancement of plans for some 10,000 new settlement homes; it would be the largest-ever batch of projects greenlit in one sitting.

Through anonymous leaks to Hebrew media outlets, Israeli officials claimed that Smotrich and Ben Gvir had demanded far wider West Bank expansion and that Netanyahu had managed to bring them down several notches. Moreover, they pointed out that the outpost legalizations and settlement construction will take years to implement.

But this did not assuage US President Joe Biden and his administration, which is wholly unconvinced that further entrenching Israeli presence beyond the Green Line will help deter future terror attacks, the US official said.

Now, the US is finding itself trying to block a UAE-drafted UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli cabinet decision and demanding an immediate end to settlement construction, exhausting political capital it hoped to reserve for more urgent foreign policy priorities, such as the war in Ukraine.

Illustrative: Palestinian prisoners stand in a cell, pending their release from Ketziot prison in southern Israel, on October 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

The US has also looked on in dismay as Ben Gvir ignored the urgings of visiting administration officials against instigating a clash with Palestinian security prisoners ahead of Ramadan. Over the past several weeks, the national security minister has announced the shortening of prisoners’ shower time and an end to perks such as fresh-baked pita bread.

Prisoner leadership has in turn threatened to launch a mass hunger strike, warning that the anger would spill over prison walls and into the West Bank during Ramadan.

Government officials had sought to placate the Biden administration by leaking that the cabinet had approved three measures aimed at boosting Palestinians’ livelihood, but the steps described were vague and relatively minor, garnering little attention in Washington, according to the US official.

“You put all of the ignored concerns together, and you create a reality in which it’s very difficult to host the prime minister,” the official explained.

This is likely unwelcome news for Netanyahu, whose office had raised the notion of a White House visit as early as this month, according to the US official.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this report.

Netanyahu and Obama meet at the White House in 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Barack Obama meet at the White House in 2011. (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)

Different styles of engagement

“There are a lot of other priorities in Washington, and the invitation wasn’t at the top of the agenda before all of this, but now that’s even more the case,” the official added, nevertheless clarifying that a Netanyahu visit would take place “eventually.”

In comparison, Netanyahu’s short-lived predecessor Yair Lapid hosted Biden in Israel days after entering the role this past summer, while Lapid’s predecessor Naftali Bennett flew to Washington less than two months after being sworn in in 2021. The last time Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, he found himself sitting alongside then-president Barak Obama less than 50 days later. In his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu met with Bill Clinton in the White House less than a month after assuming the role.

But instead of issuing an invitation, Biden issued a rare statement to The New York Times calling on Netanyahu’s government to seek “consensus” rather than jamming through its controversial judicial overhaul.

Netanyahu has managed to rack up some mileage since returning to power, visiting Jordan’s King Abdullah and French President Emmanuel Macron. But the former visit included no fanfare and the latter became overshadowed by Macron’s leaked warnings against the implementation of legislative efforts to drastically curtail the powers of the High Court of Justice.

For now, the Biden administration is holding off on adopting Macron’s script. The US official indicated that it might take until the summer to host Netanyahu, as Washington prefers to do so after calm has been restored on the ground. But a month after Ramadan is Jerusalem Day on May 18, and the US fears the new hardline government will be less inclined to limit the annual march of religious nationalists through the Old City that has sparked massive tensions in the past, the US official said.

The official clarified that the Biden administration still plans to work with the Netanyahu government to advance shared values and interests in the region. But as Ambassador Nides explained last month, “there’s only so much time in the day, so it would be enormously helpful if we don’t have to be dealing every day with things that we fundamentally oppose because that just distracts us from the bigger issues that we’re trying to achieve.”

Closing their talks at the Negev Summit, (from left) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Growing distance between neighbors

The unease has extended well beyond Washington and Abu Dhabi. Sunday’s cabinet decisions on West Bank settlements left Israel’s Middle East allies on edge. Jordan, Egypt and Turkey raised their objections publicly, while the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco chose to voice their concerns behind closed doors, two Middle East diplomats confirmed.

The latter three countries have no intention of severing their recently inked normalization agreements over such moves, but they do “have a harder time advancing them, as the Palestinian issue is neglected,” one of the Mideast diplomats explained.

Hence Morocco’s decision to hold off on announcing a date for the Negev Forum gathering of foreign ministers. Multiple other countries have supported the “wait-and-see” approach, the diplomat said, explaining that none of the parties want to hold such a high-level gathering if tensions are soaring in Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

This might not overly concern Netanyahu, who has not been particularly fond of the initiative orchestrated by his predecessor Lapid, according to an Israeli opposition lawmaker. But the premier does recognize that the Negev Forum’s “complete dissolution” would not bode well for the broader effort to advance the Abraham Accords, the MK speculated.

Meanwhile, Negev Forum countries are intent on only holding another gathering if a substantive initiative can come out of it — one that also can benefit the Palestinians — the Middle East diplomat said, acknowledging that this would be more difficult under the new Israeli government.

As for Saudi Arabia, it was the only Gulf country to speak out publicly against the Sunday cabinet decision. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan blasted the move as “a blatantly illegal act that will only serve to further inflame tensions and complicate the situation.”

Whether intentional or not, he referred to the authorization Israel gave for the nine outposts as an “annexation,” using a term that may well have jarred the Emiratis, who have long framed their normalization with Israel as having stopping Netanyahu’s planned annexation of West Bank lands.

The critique demonstrated how the new Israeli government’s latest policies might push away old and future allies alike.

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