Analysis | Netanyahu’s New Partners Waste No Time in Undermining Him


The religious extremists brought into the Israeli government by returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week wasted no time in confirming fears they would gleefully play with fire. This isn’t simply about domestic politics: Provocations by right-wing leaders have already drawn the ire of Israel’s Arab neighbors and even President Joe Biden’s administration; they threaten to fan Palestinian violence and undermine the Abraham Accords that normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states.

On Tuesday, the new minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, made a brief visit to a flashpoint of religious passions known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. The site includes the iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque, whose golden dome dominates the Jerusalem skyline, and the Temple Mount, presumed to be the site of the Second Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

The visit created an uproar of criticism, but so far, thankfully, no violence. Ben-Gvir is a proud Jewish supremacist who in 2007 was found guilty by a Jerusalem court of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. He fully understands the symbolic resonance of a trip to the temple site by Israeli officials.

The Haram al-Sharif is controlled by an ancient Muslim religious trust called the Waqf. Jews, Christians and others are welcome to visit, but the Israeli rabbinate strongly discourages Jews from going there; prayer in the area is reserved to Muslims. Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, which it has occupied since 1967 and claimed to annex in 1980, has involved a commitment to maintain the “status quo” at religious sites, an arrangement that was formalized by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. But a growing number of Israelis are determined to undo that status quo, either slowly or quickly.

Global Muslim sensitivities arise from fears that, ultimately, Israel will demolish the Haram al-Sharif and construct a Third Temple. This is definitely a minority view in Israel, but it’s growing and creeping into the cabinet.

Ben-Gvir’s visit was meant to communicate official Jewish power there. After the last such provocation, when newly installed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conducted a heavily armed march on the holy site in 2000, a wave of violent confrontations degenerated into the calamitous second Palestinian intifada. About 3,500 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, mostly civilians on both sides, were killed in the subsequent five years of fighting.

Ben-Gvir hasn’t merely set off Palestinian outrage. Jordan, which Israel recognizes as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, said it was willing to enter “a conflict” if Israel overturns the status quo. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre warned that “any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo is unacceptable.”

The UAE, which has entered into an unprecedented wide-ranging partnership with Israel since initiating the 2020 Abraham Accords — and even sought to build relations with Ben-Gvir by hosting him on a visit to its embassy in Tel Aviv in December — condemned his actions as “the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.” Netanyahu was forced to postpone a much-anticipated visit to the Gulf state scheduled for next week. The UAE joined China in arranging to bring the matter before the UN Security Council in coming days.

Netanyahu has said that normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia is one of his main goals. That was already a considerable long shot, but it took Ben-Gvir only a handful of days to make it even more difficult. The kingdom strongly condemned the action and is taking the matter to the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Netanyahu has promised he can control his fundamentalist coalition partners, but all he was able to do in this case was to convince Ben-Gvir to keep the visit brief and the timing secret. It was likely just an early taste of the provocations that lie ahead. The goal of the US and Israel’s other partners, including the UAE, should be to convince Netanyahu to reconsider the price he paid to cobble together a government and try to forge a new coalition with less radical figures such as former Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu is obviously uncomfortable with new political allies so far to his right; last month he reportedly told Ben-Gvir to “calm down.” But such extremists cannot be controlled. They can only be coddled or removed. And removing them is what Netanyahu — and if not him, then the Israeli public — must do to avoid another eruption of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories and perhaps a fracturing of Israel’s nascent ties with the Arab world.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Is Iran on the Verge of Another Revolution?: Bobby Ghosh

• US and Saudi Arabia Have Put Their Rift Behind Them: Hussein Ibish

• A Democratic Iran Is Coming and It Will Lead the Middle East: Robert D. Kaplan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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