AnalysisExpert: 'Netanyahu has a credibility problem'

Israel’s nervous allies signal they want Netanyahu – not Ben Gvir – calling shots

Far-right minister’s Temple Mount visit throws PM’s ambitious diplomatic agenda off track; if peace with Saudis is to be an option, he needs to show that he sets policy

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Otzma Yehudit party chief MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Otzma Yehudit party chief MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

It couldn’t have been what Benjamin Netanyahu envisioned for his first week back in power.

The veteran leader — one of the most experienced hands on the world diplomatic stage — had placed foreign policy at the center of his agenda. “The government will work to promote peace with all our neighbors while preserving Israel’s security, historical and national interests,” he promised in his government’s guidelines.

“We are united around clear national goals and we will work together to achieve them,” he further pledged at the start of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, adding that expanding the Abraham Accords to encompass more Arab countries was one of the missions around which his government was ostensibly in harmony.

Netanyahu also blasted the previous Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government for failing to add any countries to the 2020 accords, while arguing that only he could repeat what he had accomplished two years earlier, in the twilight of his previous tenure.

At least outwardly, Netanyahu and his allies seemed confident that they could snag the biggest prize of them all — normalization with Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Sunni kingdom that styles itself protector of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

But as Netanyahu was touting his government’s unity of purpose, early signs of its schisms were causing anxiety in the world, especially among Israel’s closest partners.

Mounting alarm

Earlier Tuesday morning, a senior coalition partner, Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, toured the Temple Mount compound, hours after reports said he had agreed to put off the visit following a meeting with Netanyahu.

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

The visit to the flashpoint holy site brought out a different kind of unity than what Netanyahu likely had in mind — that of Israel’s allies, in the US, Europe and the Middle East, in condemnation.

The United Arab Emirates, the country Netanyahu had been planning to make his first destination as prime minister next week, denounced the “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard” and called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.”

The UAE even secured an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Thursday on behalf of the Palestinians.

That reaction wasn’t especially surprising, said Moran Zaga, expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The UAE from the outset defined two issues — one is annexation, and the second is everything that happens in East Jerusalem, especially on the Temple Mount.”

What was a bit more startling was Netanyahu’s trip to the UAE being pushed off — at least to February, perhaps indefinitely. Official sources pointed to logistical considerations, but it was impossible to ignore the timing or the fact that the UAE has managed to deny Netanyahu a photo op with UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed for two years. It sent the Emirati foreign minister to sign the Abraham Accords, and Netanyahu’s previous attempt to fly there as prime minister in 2021 was scrapped, allegedly because of a dispute with Jordan.

President Isaac Herzog, left, meets with UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi on December 5, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Saudi Arabia, the kingdom at the center of Netanyahu’s vision for a new Middle East order, also blasted the visit.

And the United States, headed by a Democratic administration that remembers well Netanyahu’s brazen challenge to president Barack Obama in the leadup to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, said it was “deeply concerned,” insinuating strongly that it saw Ben Gvir’s action as “unacceptable.”

A message to Netanyahu

World reactions this week weren’t noticeably different from past responses to ministers visiting the Temple Mount, said Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.

“On the other hand,” Eran continued, “it is a different situation here because a new government came in just now, and the world is signaling to them, pay attention to our reactions.”

The world, said Eytan Gilboa of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, is showing its nervousness around Netanyahu’s promises that he — not Ben Gvir or far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — will be determining policy, especially on issues like the Temple Mount, settlements and minority rights in Israel.

MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich speak in the Knesset on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The main question is how much Netanyahu is going to be able to control those more extreme, right-wing elements in his government,” Gilboa said. “Netanyahu has a credibility problem.”

He added, “Netanyahu’s concessions during coalition talks, as well Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, raise some questions about the kind of control he may have over those elements in his government.”

The UAE has already drawn the ire of many in the Arab world for leading the normalization efforts with Israel. And with Netanyahu set to touch down only days after the Temple Mount visit, Abu Dhabi was put in an even more uncomfortable position.

The decision to postpone the trip could well have been cemented by the visit of Jordan’s King Abdullah II to UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed on Wednesday. Jordan sees itself as the leader of the fight to keep Israel from violating the status quo on the Temple Mount and in the West Bank, and the UAE currently represents the Arab world on the Security Council.

US President Joe Biden, left, welcomes Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House in Washington, December 21, 2022. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It is hard to imagine that they didn’t coordinate steps to send a firm message to Netanyahu, especially given that it was apparently Jordan that torpedoed Netanyahu’s previous attempt to visit the UAE in 2021 over a Temple Mount dispute.

The Biden administration has different concerns. It feels that both American values and interests were at stake this week. Democracy, always a foundation of Israel’s special relationship with the US, is a central plank of Biden’s foreign policy platform.

Signs that Ben Gvir and Smotrich will be free to pursue their own aims are sure to cause alarm in Washington.

The White House is also nervous about the erosion of core interests. While Washington fully understands that no two-state solution is conceivable in the foreseeable future, it is anxious about threats to that eventuality down the road.

“They don’t want Israeli policies to undermine the potential for that solution,” said Gilboa, “but Ben Gvir and Smotrich want to lay down the infrastructure for annexation.”

Israel’s then-ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mark Regev, delivers a speech at the annual Holocaust Memorial Commemoration event, co-hosted with the Israeli Embassy, in central London on January 23, 2019 (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Mark Regev, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu who now heads the Reichman University Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, sees the US reaction differently. Netanyahu has conveyed his commitment to the status quo on multiple occasions, he pointed out, and the US understands that Ben Gvir’s visit did not violate it.

“Both in Washington and in Jerusalem there is awareness of the sensitivities around the Temple Mount,” Regev pointed out, adding that with the two allies in accord over the meaning of the status quo, it was crucial to not let their mutual enemies define it.

“I think this is something the government must stress — you can’t allow groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to dictate policy,” he said.

Headache in The Hague

Tensions with Israel’s Arab partners not only threaten to get in the way of a prospective deal with Saudi Arabia, but they can also further erode support for the Abraham Accords at a time when the street in Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain is already turning against the agreements.

But even more worryingly, signs that Netanyahu isn’t keeping his far-right partners on a tight leash could result in less desire from Washington to cooperate, at a time when Israel needs US support.

The United Nations voted in December to request that the International Court of Justice intervene and render an opinion on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ICJ is sure to vote against Israel, but the severity of the judgment and its recommendations are yet to be determined.

The US has been actively supporting the fight against the Palestinian’s ICJ initiative, and Israel will need Washington’s diplomatic heft even more now that it has reached The Hague.

Illustrative: A session of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, December 11, 2019. (Peter Dejong/AP)

Israel also has an International Criminal Court investigation on its hands and will need active US backing there as well.

A Democratic White House choosing to punish Israel in international institutions wouldn’t be unprecedented.

In 2016 — a year after Netanyahu delivered his speech in Congress attacking the Obama administration’s attempts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran — the White House chose not to veto a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to all Israeli settlement construction.

Compounding the potential for a showdown with its allies, Israel has been out of step with the West for almost a year on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The issue caused a likely unanticipated and unwanted spat this week when new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced during his inaugural address that “we will talk less” in public about the war, and that he would be fielding a call from his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Incoming minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ukraine did not hide its displeasure, and even US Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine and an old friend of Israel, publicly chastised Cohen by name.

For now, the US and its Arab allies are going to watch carefully, trying to determine who it is that really calls the shots in Jerusalem — Netanyahu, or ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich.

Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s turbulent first week back in office could be helpful for him in the long run. He could point to the international reaction and make clear to his coalition that provoking criticism from current and potential partners doesn’t serve Israel’s interests.

Netanyahu made the case during the elections that there are diplomatic opportunities that only he can exploit. If Israel is to achieve those goals, the world must understand that only he is making policy in Jerusalem.

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