Netanyahu is exploiting the lessons learned from the Abraham Accords: Threaten to do something unfathomable, then do something less outrageous and reap the benefits of your willingness to compromise.
There is no doubt that even a cursory look at the guidelines of the new Israeli Government will immediately show what appears to be its strategic objective: annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and suppression of the rights of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Although there is good reason to be disturbed by these principles, one should recall that the coalition agreement the Likud signed with the Blue and White party back in in April 2020 promised a two-year budget by August of that year, rotation of the premiership from Benjamin Netanyahu to Beni Gantz within 18 months, and steps toward approval of annexation starting in July. The promise of the two-year budget ended in no budget, the rotation ended in elections, and annexation was suspended in exchange for normalization with the UAE and Bahrain.
When he seduced Gantz into joining the government under the guise of a partnership forged to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, Netanyahu’s primary concern was, as it is now, staying out of jail. Just as he duped Gantz at that time, one should not rule out the possibility that he has something similar in mind for Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Many pundits believe that it is Smotrich and Ben-Gvir who are calling the shots and that Netanyahu is at their mercy to maintain the coalition that will pass the reforms needed for him to get the coveted “get out of jail free” card. They believe that Netanyahu is out of control and that there is no limit to the ends to which he will go to escape a guilty verdict.
The tradecraft of critical analysis, however, calls for an alternative reading of the situation. Netanyahu, the master manipulator and one of the shrewdest politicians of our time, has so far succeeded in keeping his coalition partners in line without giving in to their more outrageous demands.
Ben-Gvir, who made the issue of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount one of his primary campaign promises, ended up visiting the site in the early hours of the morning shortly after the government was installed and hasn’t returned, undoubtedly under strict orders from Netanyahu. Unable to fulfill his grandiose promises to his electorate, Ben-Gvir is busying himself with the petty harassment of Palestinian prisoners by closing their pita bakeries and reducing their shower time to four minutes. Smotrich has yet to formally receive the civilian powers over the West Bank promised him by Netanyahu, and to date Defense Minister Gallant has emerged the victor in every confrontation between the two.
Netanyahu, the puppet master, is giving his extremist ministers leeway to make alarming pronouncements but has yet to allow them to implement their agenda, and my guess is that he does not intend to. Though desperate to stay out of jail, he doesn’t want to be responsible for the international isolation and possible downfall of the State of Israel, and he knows full well that that’s where the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich duo will lead us. Changing the status quo on the Temple Mount and igniting the entire Middle East? Not on his watch. It is more likely that his intention is to exploit the two and their messianic vision to instill such fear among the public and the opposition leaders that they will be ready to accept a plea bargain in exchange for the disbandment of the current coalition and its replacement with a national unity government.
While many will latch onto this scenario as a life preserver that would save the faltering Israeli economy and halt the assault on the judicial system, it would not be the harbinger of progress toward a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2020, we witnessed the birth of the Abraham Accords syndrome, which Netanyahu has learned to exploit so well. Threaten to do something unfathomable, then do something less outrageous and reap the benefits of your willingness to compromise. Threaten to pursue de jure annexation, and you will achieve normalization with the Gulf countries in exchange for shelving the plan. Approve nine outposts in gross violation of international law, and you will get a harsh UN Security Council resolution tanked because you agreed to stop at nine (well, at least for six months). Pronounce Jewish entitlement to all the land between the river and the sea, and then come off looking like a flaming liberal by sacking the two most extremist ministers and replacing them with others who, like you, think there’s a distinction between legal and illegal settlement in the OPT.
By taking two steps forward and one step back, Netanyahu is gradually advancing toward annexation of the West Bank while skirting accountability. Getting rid of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich would make it easier to continue along this path, and who knows? In keeping with the Abraham Accords syndrome, maybe he’d be rewarded with Saudi ties to boot.