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With Trump a lame duck, Bibi is moving fast

Stoking a volatile regional situation and ignoring Israel's shared values with the US, Netanyahu puts the lasting strategic partnership between the two countries at risk
View of neighborhoods in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of neighborhoods in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu boasts that “he has been very busy” in recent weeks since the results of the US elections have made it clear that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021. He has done practically everything conceivable to create new facts on the ground, prior to the transfer of power in Washington. Together with the present occupant of the White House and his fellow traveler, Donald Trump, the flurry of activity that Netanyahu has initiated on the regional level — and especially on the Palestinian front — presents immense challenges to the incoming US administration, raising serious questions for the Israeli relationship with the United States in the future.

Netanyahu’s assumption that his provocative adventurism during this lame duck period can be carried out with impunity, however, is misplaced — if not utterly mistaken. The amount of suspicion and ill-will it fosters threatens to endanger decades of robust Israeli ties with the United States. The close association between Trump and Netanyahu, frequently at the expense of the long-term interests of the countries they head, has already undermined the bipartisan basis upon which these links have rested. Instead of further endangering their durability, Israeli coalition, as well as opposition leaders, would do well to rein in Netanyahu’s hyperactivity before it is too late.

Benjamin Netanyahu has many reasons to use the short weeks before the transfer of power in Washington to his advantage. In his mind, this period provides an unusual opportunity to pursue a multiplicity of actions with very little — if any — detrimental pushback. In fact, military initiatives both close and farther from home can, or so he thinks, assist in resurrecting his somewhat tainted image as “Mr. Security,” while simultaneously reinforcing his right-wing political base. Indeed, in light of the drop in his popularity in the wake of repeated errors in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic fallout, external ventures have the added value of diverting attention away from growing domestic unrest on the eve of yet another round of elections to be conducted during his trial on several counts of bribery and malfeasance. The prime minister is well aware of the fact that this window comes with the backing — perhaps even the direct encouragement — of the Trump administration and its emissaries (especially Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Ambassador David Friedman) during its waning days in office. These unique circumstances, together with personal motives reinforced by ideological ones, provide a particularly tempting incentive for a wide array of regional escapades.

These have focused, most recently, on Iran. The assassination of the head of Teheran’s nuclear program, Mosan Fakhrizaideh this past weekend (attributed by foreign sources to Israeli operatives) — following swiftly on the drone attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz — has been touted as a critical move in halting Iran’s nuclear program. But its capacity to delay — let alone stop — such a development is widely disputed. The leaders of the European Union, including Angela Merkel, have decried this move, not only as a flagrant violation of international law, but also as extremely unhelpful in dealing with the Iranian nuclear conundrum. In Washington, officials in the incoming Biden administration have been quoted as viewing this act as a direct threat to its intentions to review American involvement in the JCPOA and to revive diplomatic options vis-à-vis Iran. They have also expressed concern with its implications for regional stability. Surely, these are not ingredients which bode well for Netanyahu’s policies come the end of January.

The same holds true for the escalation of Israeli activities on its northern front. Israeli forays into Syria, targeted mainly at Iranian bases, have escalated in recent weeks, hard on the heels of the liquidation of the mastermind of Iranian extraterritorial involvement in the region, General Qassem Soleimani, earlier this year. Skirmishes with Hezbollah forces in Syria and along the Lebanese border have reinforced this trend. Similar actions further south, especially in Gaza, have also escalated, just as intra-Palestinian talks aimed at reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO were beginning to bear fruit. Once again, Israel’s penchant for the military option at this time is not increasing its popularity in soon powerful political quarters in the United States or, for that matter, elsewhere.

Netanyahu’s stepped-up interchanges with countries to Israel’s south are another source of concern (or is it growing irritation?) in these circles. With the notable exception of the United Arab Emirates, overtures to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, however appealing to the imagination, have yet to yield substantial results on the diplomatic front (although they have apparently given significant boosts to the US arms industry). These have faltered not only as a result of the understandable reluctance of these potential Israeli partners to arouse the ire of the incoming administration, but also because of their ongoing concerns over the Palestinian issue.

Even the most vigilant have found it almost impossible to follow the many changes that the Netanyahu government has introduced, some stealthily, in the West Bank in recent months. With the backing of the Trump administration, the blurring of the Green Line separating Israel proper from the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, has accelerated. The freeze on Jewish settlement construction in these areas has been lifted, unleashing what is projected to be the greatest construction boom ever (estimated in its first stage at over 5,000 housing units). Tellingly, tenders have been issued for the establishment of a new settlement in the E1 area near Ma’ale Adumim, essentially truncating the northern from the southern portions of the West Bank. Scores of previously unrecognized outposts have been legitimized in the past week — an act that, given the saturation of events domestically and externally, took place almost without any public notice. And new tenders for construction in Jerusalem — in Givat Hamatos, in Har Gilo on lands belonging to Walaja, in Har Homa, and near Atarot — all impinge on Palestinian sections of the city.

These measures cannot be isolated from other repressive policies, such as the rise in home demolitions, especially in area C which, according to Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” are slated to be annexed to Israel (129 such structures have been destroyed in the past three weeks alone). Palestinians throughout the West Bank have experienced constant harassment: their olive trees were cut down by settlers, some of their harvest stolen, their grazing lands further limited and their movement curtailed. The number of Palestinians injured or killed during confrontations induced by repressive measures continues to grow. All this is taking place just when it is becoming clear that the Trump-Netanyahu program to bypass the Palestinian question cannot hold water for much longer: it has been rejected by the international community, by the European Union, by some of Israel’s closest allies elsewhere, by many Israeli citizens, and is under review by the incoming Biden team.

The bevy of recent initiatives instigated by Netanyahu and his cohorts will not necessarily endure. Some have only symbolic value at this juncture (notably the legalization of settlements in defiance of international law and conventions). Others fly in the face of acceptable norms (targeted assassinations, for one). But the cumulative effect of these policies is akin to pouring fuel on what is already an exceptionally volatile situation with worrisome implications. No good can come to Israel from igniting the region. Nor can its strategic partnership with the United States survive for much longer unless it understands that this alliance relies both on mutual values as well as common interests.

The intemperate rush to alter the parameters of Israel’s position in the region though the use of force threatens to upend the rules-based global order that has buttressed its existence since its inception. It also sacrifices the possibility of its peaceful integration into the Middle East on the altar of the immediate political and personal considerations of the current prime minister.

There are consequences to this behavior. Flaunting Israeli military might could yet trigger lethal responses. It also cannot but threaten Israel’s longstanding connection with the United States. Hopefully, the damage wrought in these unsettling days can be contained temporarily. But if there is not an understanding that lasting partnerships are a two-way street, Israel’s viability is at risk. For Israel’s benefit — if not that of its present prime minister — a serious effort must be made now to fortify the value-rooted foundations of this irreplaceable alliance and imbue it with alternative and updated — primarily diplomatic — strategies that will give it lasting meaning.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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