Israel’s divisions are distracting it from a regional perfect storm

The writer is the Lowy Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former US ambassador to Israel and author of ‘Master of the Game’ 

For the time being, the crisis in Israel is over. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paused his government’s effort to curb the independence of the Supreme Court, just when it looked like the country was about to descend into the abyss. President Isaac Herzog will now preside over a one-month effort to fashion a compromise, while the nation holds its breath. And Israel’s enemies and friends will watch and wonder whether this formidable regional power has succumbed to the same internal divisions that have felled so many of its neighbours.

Unfortunately, it’s likely to be a temporary reprieve. The two sides are very far apart. The government seeks control over the court to advance its far-right and religious objectives; the opposition seeks to protect the court’s independence to thwart the government.

Both sides are full of righteous indignation. The government believes that it won the right via the ballot box to pursue its agenda. Each coalition member has its own vital stake in the judicial restructuring. The religious Zionists want to prevent the court from protecting Palestinian land rights in the West Bank. The orthodox religious parties want to prevent the court from sending yeshiva students to the army. Netanyahu wants to stop it from sending him to jail.

The secular opposition believes that by preserving the court’s independence, it is both protecting Israel’s democracy and its way of life. It has just won a big victory. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who came out in such force week after week know their way back to the public square. The reservists who threatened not to serve and the high-tech entrepreneurs who threatened to leave know how to do so again. And the politicians, eyeing highly favourable polls, can now see a clear path to victory if they can bring the governing coalition down (although Benny Gantz, leader of one of the centre parties, might be tempted yet again by Netanyahu’s siren song).

With only a month before the Knesset comes back into session there is not enough time for reconciliation, especially if both sides feel they have more to gain by refusing to compromise. They are likely to engage in a game of manoeuvre to ensure that when the clock stops, the other side is blamed.

Preoccupied by all this, Israel’s policymakers have little bandwidth to deal with the external crises that threaten to create a perfect storm. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the situation has been deteriorating as friction between Palestinian and Israeli settler militants and the Israel Defense Forces generates a mounting casualty toll.

Several factors are fuelling the potential for an explosion. The Palestinian Authority is crumbling. Young militants with ready access to weapons are attacking Israelis, not deterred by the memory of the last intifada, when they were infants. Settler vigilantes are responding with “price tag” violence (best illustrated by the burning of Palestinian homes in Huwara). Extremist Israeli government ministers are inciting and indulging the settler youth. And the onset of Ramadan and Passover, when emotions run high, makes friction at Jerusalem’s holy sites seemingly inevitable.

The last thing Netanyahu needs now is an explosion of violence. But his coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, seem determined to pursue the opposite approach, making incendiary statements and disavowing concessions that Netanyahu is willing to make to the Palestinians over tax revenues and work permits.

This behaviour is also undermining relations with neighbouring Jordan and progress with the Abraham Accords. The United Arab Emirates is openly warning of the negative consequences of the conflict with the Palestinians and refusing to set a date for a Netanyahu visit to Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, the Saudis, whom Netanyahu hoped to bring into the circle of peace, are busy reconciling with Israel’s enemy Iran instead.

Iran continues its march towards the nuclear threshold, with US officials recently testifying that it would need only 12 days to enrich enough uranium to weapons grade for a nuclear bomb. Iran’s regime has survived the women’s uprising, at least for the time being, and forged strategic alliances with Russia and China. While its economy remains in trouble, it is now set to receive advanced Russian weapons and technology, a reward for the help it is providing to Vladimir Putin for his war in Ukraine.

Until now, the Iranians have been deterred from crossing the nuclear threshold by fear of Israeli pre-emption or American retaliation. But Iran knows the US is preoccupied elsewhere and uninterested in a new Middle Eastern war. Iran could well conclude from Israel’s internal crisis that it no longer needs to fear its military action either.

All this is alarming to President Joe Biden’s administration, which depends on Israel, fortified by decades of generous US military assistance, to help maintain stability in a volatile region. Not only is that role being eroded by the internal divisions, but the crisis over judicial restructuring, as well as the Netanyahu government’s ambitious plans for settlement activity, is creating friction with Washington.

Netanyahu’s ambassador has been called into the US state department to be reprimanded. Meanwhile, no date has been set yet for the prime minister’s customary visit to Washington. Biden has intervened twice in private to persuade him to back away from his judicial legislation. The US is also working with Israel, Egypt and Jordan to try to keep a lid on the Palestinian territories, and its armed forces recently exercised with the Israeli air force in a display intended to be noticed in Tehran. But these will seem inadequate band aids if Israel’s internal and external situations deteriorate further.

With the stakes so high, Israel’s friends are left to hope that Herzog’s mediation can succeed. Only its enemies will relish the failure.

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