Netanyahu assured U.S. he’d curb the far right. Has he already lost control?


TEL AVIV – Immediately after the November election that elevated a fringe bloc of right-wing politicians to the top seats of power in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked on an American media blitz, aimed at the ally the most important thing is to reassure his country.

“My hands are firmly on the steering wheel,” he said in an interview after the interview.

But just three weeks into his term, critics say Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has already begun to veer off course – quickly advancing measures that seek to weaken Israel’s judicial system and end any prospects that remains for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. . The excess of initiatives is in stark contrast to Netanyahu’s calculated and measured style, and they are proof, said Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul in New York, that he has lost control.

“Netanyahu’s associates know he’s the weakest he’s ever been, so they’re holding him hostage,” said Pinkas, who fielded calls from struggling U.S. senators and representatives. on strategies to deal with the new government, the far right and from a religious point of view. conservative in Israeli history.

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Netanyahu, Israel’s most progressive leader, “no longer has legitimacy; if this government collapses, there’s a chance he’ll go to prison,” said Yoav Fromer, head of Tel Aviv University’s Center for United States Studies, referring to the ongoing trial against Netanyahu, who has been indicted in three separate ones. cases of corruption. The trial, Fromer said, has granted too much leverage to Netanyahu’s extremist religious parties, which have promised to help save him from prosecution in exchange for the freedom to pursue their own agenda.

The unofficial quid pro quo has already translated into substantial concessions to Israel’s far south and exposed the limits of US influence. US officials expressed their discomfort to Netanyahu because of the demands made by Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the ultranationalist bloc Religious Zionism, during coalition negotiations, according to Israeli media. But Smotrich and his allies were appointed to critical and sensitive positions in Israel’s security establishment and overseeing civilian affairs in the West Bank — the disputed territory that members of the radical bloc, in defiance of the United States, have openly vowed to annex.

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Publicly, Washington reaffirmed its commitment to its “shared values” with Israel. But he is also quietly recalibrating his position, telling Netanyahu that he will be responsible for undermining those values ​​- and warning that his ambitions to contain Iran and relations could be affected to normalize with Saudi Arabia.

“My approach is that you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, want to do big things, we want to do big things,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told The Washington Post. “But if your backyard is on fire, there’s nothing we can do.”

“Every minute I talk about problems with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the [West Bank] extra posts, a moment is lost on calls with the White House when we could be talking about other things,” he said, referring to the site of Jerusalem that is holy to both Muslims and Jews and has often been a flashpoint in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Earlier this month, Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, made a controversial visit to the site. The United States was the first country to publicly condemn the move, saying changes to the status quo would be “unacceptable.”

What is the Temple Mount, and why did Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit cause tension?

On January 2, the night before Ben Gvir’s visit, when Hamas called on Palestinian youth to “mobilize,” Netanyahu convinced Ben Gvir to delay his tour, according to Israeli media. But his hard-line fundamentalism demanded that he resist “submitting to terrorism” and at 7am the following morning, flanked by security officers, Ben Gvir arrived on the Temple Mount.

“This is what happens when a weak prime minister is forced to entrust the most irresponsible person in the Middle East with responsibility for the most combustible place in the Middle East,” tweeted opposition leader Yair Lapid in response to the incident.

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Netanyahu’s far-right ministers are staunch ideologues with strong constituencies, including many Messianic Jews who believe that peace in Israel can only be achieved through total war.

Zvika Fogel, a lawmaker from Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party, told Army Radio that even if Ben Gvir’s visit resulted in Hamas rocket fire killing Israelis, “then, yes, it would be worth it, because it would be the last war.” ​there, and afterwards we can sit back and raise pigeons and all the other beautiful birds there are.”

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations on January 5, the American representative Robert A. Wood said that the United States was “concerned about any unilateral actions that increase tensions or undermine the viability of a two-state solution.”

The United States has vetoed more than 50 United Nations resolutions against Israel over the years — blocking tribunals, sanctions and boycotts over its occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and its wars in Gaza — arguing that Israel’s strong justice system is able to keep its military. accountable.

But in the past week, Netanyahu’s government has rapidly advanced a judicial overhaul aimed at weakening the Supreme Court, which could allow the prime minister and his allies to pick off the judges presiding over his corruption trial. hand. The ploy, legal experts warn, could save Netanyahu in the short term, but ultimately harm Israel by undermining the ability of the United States to protect it in the international world.

“The Supreme Court and the judicial system are our legal iron dome against the world,” Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, said in a statement, referring to Israel’s US-funded counterinsurgency system. on TV last week.

That defense mechanism is crucial, he said, at a time when international criticism of Israel is urgently needed. On Monday, more than 90 member states of the United Nations expressed “deep concern” about Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority – including scaling back construction and withholding tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue – after the PA sought support from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

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Israel’s far-right rise puts the focus back on the West Bank’s livelihood

The prospect of a breach in the American diplomatic shield also comes at the same time as a surge in settler activity, fueled by government promises to authorize dozens of illegal outposts and allocate $2 billion to build roads and infrastructure on land the Palestinians hope with them to upgrade as part of their future situation.

“We should, as a policy, send our people to [all of the West Bank]. This is the land of Israel,” Ben Gvir said last year.

That could complicate US aid to Israel — including $3.8 billion in annual security assistance — which is central to Netanyahu’s broader agenda of curbing Iran’s nuclear program and normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia. . Israel and Riyadh have cooperated covertly to destabilize Iran in recent years, but formal ties would “expand the circle of peace beyond our wildest dreams,” Netanyahu told the Washington Examiner last month.

Nides, the US ambassador, said the United States is working to remind Netanyahu that changes to the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites and government support for West Bank settlements undermine his regional ambitions. Washington remains committed to keeping the “vision” of the two-state solution alive, Nides said, but acknowledged that there is a lack of political will and that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is growing.

“We will push back when we need to push back,” he said.

Chuck Freilich, Israel’s former deputy national security adviser, said Israel’s new government has eroded the shared values ​​that diplomats had already fought for, and that could damage the “unbreakable bond” without recognition .

“The results will not be good for anyone,” he said.

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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