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Netanyahu more worried about Israel's protests than Palestinians

The Israeli prime minister will receive US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as violence escalates, normalization stalls, and the economy tanks in anticipation of right-wing reforms.
Israel protest

Deja vu in Jenin ahead of Blinken visit

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the escalation in Jenin this week could have been a “legitimate diversion” to the massive protests over right wing judicial reforms, writes Ben Caspit.

Palestinian health officials say ten Palestinians, including a 60-year-old woman and a male civilian, died Thursday in what Israel said was a counter-terror operation in Jenin, which has become a hotbed for armed Palestinian resistance groups. 

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, briefing reporters ahead of US Secretary of State’s Antony Blinken’s trip to Israel and the West Bank Jan. 29-31, said that the US is “urging de-escalation”, that Palestinian civilian casualties were “regrettable,” and that the Palestinian Authority’s  cutting security ties with Israel was a mistake. 

“During meetings with Netanyahu and his top aides,” writes Elizabeth Hagedorn, “Blinken is expected to seek assurances that the new Israeli government won’t alter the delicate status quo arrangement at Jerusalem’s holy sites, expand settlement building in the West Bank or take other unilateral actions that would undermine a two-state solution to the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” 

For Netanyahu, who is serving for the sixth time as prime minister, this is all par for the course. The flurry of recent high-level US visitors — including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last week, and Director of Central Intelligence Bill Burns this week — mostly centered on the Palestinian issue and Iran — has a familiar rhythm.

Also familiar was Netanyahu’s meeting in Amman Tuesday with King Abdullah to assure the Jordanian monarch that Israel will respect the historic status quo of the Al Aqsa mosque and to revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as Rina Bassist reports.

And the diversion thesis was also in play when Israeli jets struck Gaza early Friday in response to rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

Not anymore.  A terrorist attack on Israeli civilians outside a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday night, killing at least seven Israeli, elevated the latest escalation from routine to “strategic,” in Ben Caspit’s score. The potential for a more massive Israeli operation, and further Palestinian response, especially if Hamas and Islamic Jihad feel compelled to get into the fray, could signal another round of violence that has rocked Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in recent years.

Netanyahu rattled by the Israeli street

Even if the violence escalates, Netanyahu still finds himself on more comfortable turf as a commander in chief in the security realm than he does in response to widespread and massive protests over radical judicial reforms pushed by his coalition partners.

“Israelis are fighting back against those they accuse of plotting to dismantle their democracy,” writes Caspit. Netanyahu is “facing wide public anger, warnings by hundreds of leading economists and jurists, signs of foreign divestment and international condemnation” for the reform program.

“The economic issue is perhaps the only issue that could stop the legislative blitz by Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-religious coalition partners,” adds Caspit.  “Netanyahu prides himself on his stewardship of Israel’s burgeoning economy and the wave of privatization he has driven over more than a decade, with fiscal liberalization, acceleration of Israel’s high-tech startup industry, exploitation of natural gas discoveries as a strategic asset and other accomplishments.”

Now that’s all in jeopardy as business leaders, student groups, LGBTQ activists, former military, artists and more have sought to thwart the right wing assault, which many fear would undermine Israel’s independent judiciary, a potential death blow for democracy.

The catch this time is that the Biden Administration is weighing in on what appears a clear cut Israeli domestic issue, seemingly in the spirit of the “shared values” which animate the relationship. As Caspit writes here, Netanyahu is tough to read on US intervention on the topic. With Sullivan, Netanyahu was reassuring that the final version of the reform bill would eventually be watered down. With his coalition partners, however, Netanyahu is sending no such signal. In the worst case, the US threat to curtail aid or support might be Netanyahu’s lifeline to force an accommodation on the legislation, which is dividing Israeli society and jeopardizing its economy.

Normalization grounded?

Leaf said that Blinken will also discuss means to advance Israel’s normalization and integration with Arab states, although that seems for now a reach given the current Israeli-Palestinian escalation.

With regard to normalization with Saudi Arabia, a priority for Netanyahu, Stephen Kalin of the Wall Street Journal said on an Al-Monitor webinar this week that the Kingdom’s position is consistent, that normalization requires recognition of a Palestinian state, a position repeated by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud last week in Davos, as Marita Kassis reports.

The escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence has also constrained the diplomatic advocacy for normalization by the United Arab Emirates, which sits on the Security Council this term, and therefore must represent the Arab consensus on the UN panel.  Abu Dhabi’s seat on the Council complements its increasingly prominent role in regional politics, which included hosting a summit of the leaders of Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt last week.

Meanwhile, there are no set dates for Netanyahu’s highly anticipated visits to Washington and Abu Dhabi, which have been expected to take place next month.

‘Fundamental alignment’ on Iran

One issue that should be free of acrimony is Iran, where Leaf referred to a “seamless transition from one [Israeli] government to another in terms of really a fundamental alignment.”

With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, a seeming dead letter, Netanyahu can move to strengthening options for an even more coordinated diplomatic pressure and a robust military option.

Jared Szuba has the report this week on the largest ever joint US-Israeli military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean.  The exercise reportedly included midair refueling drills, which would likely be necessary for an attack on Iran.

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