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Tensions in West Bank threaten Israel-US intelligence cooperation

Top US Gen. Milley delivered "unprecedented message" to Israeli officials, warning that internal chaos and growing tensions in the West Bank could endanger the country’s strategic relations with the United States.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a statement after their meeting at the prime minister's office, Jerusalem, April 12, 2021.

TEL AVIV — Two Israeli Arabs from the towns of Ramle and Kuseife turned themselves in to the police Thursday night, in relation to the shooting attack that took place hours earlier in Tel Aviv.

They are suspected of driving the Palestinian assailant who shot and wounded three people. In parallel, two family members of the assailant, from the West Bank village on Ni’lin, were detained by Israeli security forces.

The pace of the chaos gripping Israel these days seems to be overtaking the rate of Iran’s bomb-grade uranium enrichment. The hectic events on Thursday said it all.

It began with a decision by Israeli air force commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar to suspend a highly decorated and respected combat pilot. Bar accused Col. Gilad Peled of lying to him about his alleged involvement in organizing a boycott by his fellow reserve pilots of their weekly training exercise to protest what they regard as an anti-democratic judicial overhaul by the government coalition. 

The move against Peled was designed to stem the spreading disobedience among hundreds of reserve service combat pilots who constitute the backbone of the Israeli air force and the State of Israel’s main life insurance policy.

The highly unusual announcement was almost drowned out by the raucous daylong protests around the country, dubbed by organizers as “day of disruption” against the deep constitutional changes being fast-tracked through the Knesset. Thousands of demonstrators blocked major highways and junctions, drove at a snail’s pace to clog up roads and clashed with police.

Their fury was fueled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three-day visit to Italy, which has all the hallmarks of a luxury weekend getaway to Rome for Netanyahu and his wife, thinly disguised as an important state visit. Last month, the couple spent a weekend in Paris after Netanyahu met with French President Emmanuel Macron. Reports that 60 rooms had been reserved for the Netanyahu party at one of Rome’s most expensive hotels appeared to many the height of insensitivity at such a crucial juncture in Israeli history. Even Netanyahu supporters were nonplussed by this seeming excess in the face of such widespread criticism.

The protesters, for their part, were determined to block the roads to Ben-Gurion International Airport to highlight the prime minister’s junket, forcing Netanyahu and his wife to chopper to the airport from Jerusalem, a mere half hour drive away. As a diversionary tactic, the couple flew to the airport separately, one on a police chopper, the other on a military one. Upon arrival, Netanyahu conducted a brief meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at an airfield hangar since the visiting official declined to leave the airport and confront the chaos outside.

As mentioned, several hours later, while the Netanyahu’s were meeting in Rome’s great synagogue with leaders of the Italian Jewish community, a gun-wielding Palestinian went on a shooting spree on one of Tel Aviv’s main drags, Dizengoff Street. Barely a mile away, thousands of protesters were marching with torches through the city’s street, unaware of the gunfight that ended with the assailant being shot dead by off-duty security forces who happened to be in the area — all on live television during the primetime evening news shows.

At the start of the news broadcast, just before the terror attack, President Isaac Herzog delivered yet another brief address to the nation, pleading for a compromise over the constitutional crisis. But his appeal was sidelined by other breaking news — an unprecedented decision by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the radical nationalist security minister, to remove from office “effective immediately” the commander of the Tel Aviv police for not being tough enough against the protesters in recent weeks and enabling them to block major traffic arteries.

Ben-Gvir’s decision was backed by Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and prompted an urgent petition by a pro-democracy organization to the Supreme Court. The police commander — Ami Eshed — nonetheless turned up at the site of the Tel Aviv terror attack to oversee the hunt for possible additional attackers, waving off reporters’ questions about his dismissal.

Later that evening, former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo was interviewed on the investigative news program “Uvda.” In a paraphrase on the gist of his remarks, Pardo said that if he were the head of the Mossad, and he saw an enemy state undergoing what Israel is going through right now, he would tell the prime minister that there is no need to invest intelligence efforts vis-a-vis that country because it is falling apart on its own without any need for outside help.

"Unprecedented" message from Milley

The fast-paced developments are overshadowing the ongoing crisis in Israel-US relations, as manifested during last week’s visit to Israel by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. The top American soldier met with Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, senior security officials and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

“What we heard from Gen. Milley,” a top Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “was unprecedented. I cannot remember when our American allies spoke to us in such a way. What the Americans, including Milley, are telling us through many channels is simple: If you want to continue talking to us about Iran, about Russian S-400 [air defense system] supplies to Iran, about uranium enrichment and sanctions, you need to calm the [Palestinian] territories.”

Milley, according to the senior Israeli official, blasted hard-line Israeli government ministers who urged Netanyahu to recall the Israeli delegation from the US-sponsored Feb. 26 summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with the Palestinian Authority to protest a deadly Palestinian terror attack in the West Bank.

“You have to decide which side you are on. It is not possible that after a conference in Aqaba, to which we send senior generals, you are setting Huwara on fire," the visiting American general reportedly said, referring to the riot by Jewish settlers who vandalized cars and homes in the Palestinian village of Huwara following a deadly terror attack on two Israeli brothers.

Another senior military official told Al-Monitor this week that he was particularly concerned because the professional security channels with Washington had always been stable even when diplomatic and political relations were tense.

“This is a different experience,” he said on condition of anonymity, pointing to relations with the Pentagon, the US Central Command, the CIA and National Security Agency, which he described as “under a question mark and under great tension.” The Americans, he added, “are tired of us. They do not intend to invite Netanyahu to Washington. If it continues like this, Netanyahu will get a meeting with [President Joe] Biden in some corridor on the sidelines of the annual UN conference in New York."

The visit to the United States by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich beginning Sunday is also raising US-Israel tensions. Smotrich had said last week that Huwara “should be wiped out” because its Palestinian residents attack Jewish settlers. After apologizing on Facebook, the State Department agreed on Thursday to give Smotrich a diplomatic visa. Still, that does not mean that he will get any official meetings in Washington. More so, according to Israeli news reports, US officials have declined to attend the annual Israel Bonds fundraiser, to which Smotrich has been invited.  

Israeli officials are also concerned about potential damage to the fruitful intelligence cooperation with the United States.

"Western intelligence agencies are beginning to find it uncomfortable sharing sensitive intelligence information with Israel, knowing that extremists such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are in the Israeli Cabinet," a former senior security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "And we understand them.”

The official recalled reports in 2017 that President Donald Trump had inadvertently exposed to Russia sensitive intelligence information that had been received from Israel about the Islamic State. “The US president can afford to undermine intelligence cooperation with anyone in the world,” the source added. “Israel cannot.”

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