ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Analysis'The fuse with a lot of countries is already quite short'

Strained ties with allies could imperil IDF freedom to operate in Jenin

While US, Arab allies understand the need to fight terrorism, the potential for escalation remains high; moreover, operation could be seen as serving far-right

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Smoke rises during an Israeli military raid in Jenin on Monday, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Smoke rises during an Israeli military raid in Jenin on Monday, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

It’s no secret that Israel’s relationships with key allies have come under strain since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year.

The tension is especially evident with Israel’s closest ally, the United States.

Six months after entering office, Netanyahu has yet to receive an invitation to visit the Biden White House amid disagreements with Washington over his government’s divisive efforts to rein in the power of the courts and hand greater authority to the executive.

The US is also openly concerned about vigilante violence by Israelis against Palestinians, settlement expansion, and statements by ministers on the right flank of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Israeli officials, for their part, don’t hide their opposition to a potential nuclear deal between the US and Iran.

Even as Netanyahu dreams of finalizing a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, his ties with the Arab countries that do recognize Israel are also showing signs of fraying.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets then-US vice president Joe Biden upon his arrival to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool, via AP)

There have been no high-level visits in either direction with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, and the two Gulf countries – the UAE especially – have repeatedly and openly condemned Israeli leaders and policies under the new government.

Ambassadors from Israel’s Gulf allies stayed away from an iftar dinner hosted by the Foreign Ministry in April to send a message to Jerusalem.

The data also shows a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s newly allied nations.

And last month, Morocco decided to cancel plans to host a highly anticipated summit in July for foreign ministers from Israel, the US and several Arab countries in response to a pair of moves by Israel to significantly expand its settlements in the West Bank.

The Negev Forum steering committee poses for a photo in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (Foreign Ministry)

Now, as Israel embarks on a long-awaited operation in Jenin, it needs cover from its allies to give it ample time to uproot terror infrastructure in the city. But Jerusalem may find them less receptive than it might desire.

“The fuse with a lot of countries is already quite short,” a European diplomat told The Times of Israel.

A strong defense

The fact that Netanyahu and Biden have yet to sit down face-to-face certainly doesn’t increase the likelihood for mutual understanding.

“It’s never good when the US president and Israel’s prime minister don’t meet each other and swap opinions without a mediator,” said Eldad Shavit, senior researcher for the Institute for National Security Studies. ”

At the same time, Biden and his senior advisers have repeatedly stressed Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism, Shavit noted.

While the political relationship limps along, the defense one is actually progressing nicely.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin deliver a statement to the press at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) headquarters near the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed expanding bilateral Israel-US cooperation against Iran in a meeting in Europe two weeks ago, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and CENTCOM commander Gen. Erik Kurilla all made their way to Israel to coordinate with their Israeli counterparts.

“They’ve talked a lot,” explained Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “You can see there’s a pretty clear record trail of conversations about the West Bank.”

“I don’t think that any of this comes as a surprise to Pentagon brass,” said Schanzer of the IDF’s intensified action in the West Bank.

In addition, with pressing international challenges like the Ukraine war and the China threat – and an election season approaching – the Biden White House does not need a full-blown crisis with Israel.

Aggression rejection

As of late Monday, the response from Arab countries to what is apparently the IDF’s biggest West Bank counterterror operation in 20 years has been predictable.

Jordan issued a statement condemning “Israeli aggression” and calling on the international community to pressure Israel to stop the operation before the situation “explodes.”

Egypt’s response was in a similar vein, stressing Cairo’s “complete rejection of Israeli repeated attacks and incursions against Palestinian cities, and the result of innocent victims of civilians in excessive and random use of force.”

Israeli troops operate in the West Bank city of Jenin, July 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The UAE also condemned the operation, but in much less strident terms. It called for “the immediate halt of repeated and escalating campaigns against the Palestinian people.”

And while Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry took the time to congratulate Rwanda and Belarus on their independence days, it hadn’t issued a statement on the operation by late Monday afternoon.

“Do I think they’re going to pull back their ambassadors? No,” said Joshua Krasna, director of Center for Emerging Energy Politics in the Middle East, in reference to Israel’s Arab partners. “Do I think they’re going to stop Israeli tourists? No.”

But they are also not especially eager to cut Israel a lot of slack right now. Israel’s Arab partners continue to be frustrated by the government’s settlement policies, including Netanyahu’s giving practically all control over planning approval for construction in West Bank settlements to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself and an impassioned advocate of the nationalist movement.

Settlement activists, one of whom is wearing a prayer shawl and tefillin, at a construction of the illegal West Bank outpost of Homesh, May 29, 2023. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s government has announced plans for thousands of new settlement homes, including in the northern West Bank. It also reversed the 2005 ban on living in four northern West Bank settlements evacuated along with the Gaza disengagement.

These policies risk making it appear in the eyes of Arab allies that the IDF operation is being carried out to protect settlement expansion near Jenin and Nablus.

“From their point of view,” said Krasna, “what’s going on in northern West Bank is part of a broader trend, and a counterterrorism operation will be seen as part of this greater trend of the right-wing, or the far-right wing, of the Israeli government dictating policy.”

The fact that Israel’s Arab partners are not democratic themselves also renders it harder for them to grasp the demands of coalition politics that drive many of Netanyahu’s decisions.

Ultimately, said Shavit, “it depends on the kind of operation, how long it goes on, and how much it affects Palestinian civilians.”

Smoke billows from an Israeli helicopter strike during an army raid in Jenin in the West Bank on June 19, 2023. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)

But the potential for escalation is high in Jenin.  Only last month, the IDF used a helicopter to carry out strikes to provide cover to evacuate wounded soldiers after an army vehicle ran over an IED. The Palestinian Authority health ministry reported that five people were killed and at least 91 people were wounded in that unanticipated clash.

Planning for the operation in Jenin was no secret, and terrorists in the city had time to prepare booby traps and lay mines. The IDF might well be forced to use massive firepower to evacuate or protect troops, which raises the likelihood that large numbers of Palestinian civilians could be killed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a security assessment in his office regarding the IDF operation in Jenin on July 3, 2023 (Courtesy)

“There is an understanding that the PA security forces are ineffective and that the only way to regain control will be through the IDF,” said Schanzer. I don’t think anybody has a hard time understanding that right now. The real question is, will there be surprises, and will those surprises force Israel to take harsher measures?”

“That’s where you could see the rhetoric start to sharpen.”

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