The FBI's reported decision to launch a criminal probe of the May 2022 killing of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh during a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen has prompted consternation and anger among Israeli officials.
“This is a very dramatic step. None of us knew about it; we did not see it coming. We did not receive any advance warning from the administration. It simply happened and right now we have no idea what is behind it,” a senior security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz immediately rejected any cooperation with such an investigation, insisting that Israeli soldiers would not be questioned by any foreign agency. His statement was echoed by outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Both of them had nurtured a close relationship with the US administration.
Senior Israeli officials placed urgent calls to their American counterparts at the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council seeking clarification, to little avail.
A highly placed Israeli source shared with Al-Monitor a theory that the initiative for the probe stemmed from the Justice Department and FBI. In normal times, the administration would have blocked such an idea. However, the source said, in light of the significant right-wing victory in the Nov. 1 elections, the administration decided to go along with it to reinforce its signals to returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that appointing ultranationalist Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich as his minister of defense would be unacceptable.
The administration has also been under heavy pressure from Congress to investigate the killing of a US citizen by a foreign military force, with Democratic senators and House members sending letters and sponsoring amendments to advance their demands. Particular pressure came from Democratic Senator Chris van Hollen, who had authored amendments requiring the State Department and administration to provide further information on Abu Akleh’s death.
Does this strange affair signal an erosion of Israel’s special standing in Washington? It's too soon to tell.
“Initial signs have appeared,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, pointing to last week’s UN vote seeking an opinion from the International Court of Justice on Israel’s prolonged occupation of Palestinian territories.
“The US did not really help us out on that, and we will see the results in the future, too. The administration is seeing the political process in Israel and does intend to ignore it. American Jewry will also play a role in this, given concerns over the deepening rift between Reform and Conservative Jews and the new Orthodox government in Jerusalem,” the diplomatic source added.
Intense efforts by Israeli defense officials to uncover the origin and meaning of the FBI probe have yielded some insights. The decision was made by the FBI and Justice Department. Israel was aware of the move, but expected the administration to block the plan, as it had done to similar initiatives in the past.
“Once it comes out, making a U-turn is hard,” said a senior Israeli diplomatic official on condition of anonymity. “If the administration tries to revoke the decision, it will encounter harsh domestic criticism, especially on the part of lawmakers. The outing of this development has ensured its immunity, at least for the immediate future.”
Other sources surmise that the story was leaked to right-wing Channel 14 by an Israeli official to suggest that the decision was not linked to Netanyahu’s election victory and had originated during the Lapid government.
According to this version of events, the US move was less calculated or orchestrated and more the result of a lack of coordination among administration agencies. “It could well be that this was started by a hostile political element, but we have no doubt that it was not approved by the White House or State Department,” a senior political source in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The American system is not always fully synchronized or methodical. The minute an official issues something like this, and given the sensitive timing and volatility, there is no turning back.”
What now? “Silence is the best way to resolve such a crisis. Noise will only exacerbate it,” said the security official. His satisfaction with the fact that resolving the crisis will now be up to Netanyahu was evident. “Let’s see him resolve this with Bezalel Smotrich as defense minister,” he added.
“This is a development with strategic implications of the first order. It is unprecedented. Israel will not allow any foreign investigation of its soldiers and officers. The question is what happens when this external element is our most important ally.”
The Defense Ministry has dismissed various emerging conspiracy theories that maintain the FBI probe is part of US's hostility to Israel over its use of offensive cyber systems, including the blacklisting of Israeli spyware firms. “The two are not connected,” the security official argued. “We obviously compete with the Americans in the cyber realm and there are security and economic interests involved, but the FBI investigation is something else.”
Either way, in a rare consensus, senior Israeli officials including political rivals Lapid and Netanyahu as well as Gantz and whoever succeeds him are in agreement that the FBI decision to probe the journalist’s killing is absurd and that there are no prospects of Israeli cooperation. Netanyahu will now have to decide how to maintain Israel's strong ties with Washington and keep the FBI at bay, one of several hot potatoes sizzling on the desk he will soon occupy.