Hard-Liners Are Hurting Israel’s Security

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Embarking on his sixth term in office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear his determination to confront the threat posed by Iran, in part by deepening ties with Israel’s Arab neighbors. A strong and united regional coalition against Iran would benefit Israel’s security. Unfortunately, the actions of Netanyahu’s own government are making that goal harder to achieve.         

Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends on backing from several pugnacious far-right figures. The prime minister has reportedly assured US officials that he will keep the hard-liners in check, so far with little evident success. Shortly after the new government assumed office, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir paid a highly publicized visit to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary — causing an uproar among Arab governments, who accuse Israel of attempting to change the long-standing status quo at the site, where only Muslims are allowed to pray.

Far from shrinking from controversy, Netanyahu’s partners have continued to court it. In retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s bid to haul Israel before the International Court of Justice, the government has stripped top Palestinian officials of travel privileges, banned Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank, and redirected roughly $40 million in Palestinian Authority tax revenues to the families of Jewish terrorism victims. For good measure, Ben-Gvir has ordered police to remove Palestinian flags from public places.          

Such moves would be provocative at any time. Now, they are especially shortsighted. Events have brought the US and Israel into closer alignment than at any point in President Joe Biden’s tenure — and certainly closer than under former President Barack Obama, whose efforts to forge a nuclear agreement with Iran were furiously opposed by Netanyahu. With negotiations to revive that deal stalled, Biden has rightly focused on forging a coalition that includes Israel and the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to thwart Iran’s malign activities in the region.

The Netanyahu government has an interest in limiting conflict with the Palestinians in order to focus on threats and opportunities abroad. Palestinian leaders certainly deserve their share of criticism for grandstanding moves such as the International Court of Justice case and for continuing payments to the families of “martyrs” implicated in attacks on Israelis. But the antics of Israeli officials such as Ben-Gvir are making tensions worse. They risk sparking violence, if not a third intifada, and distracting from the effort to counter Iran. By weakening already fragile prospects for a two-state solution, they undermine US policy and jeopardize support for Israel within Biden’s Democratic coalition.

Inflammatory actions by government hard-liners also harm prospects for expanded cooperation with the Saudis, who want to see progress on the Palestinian issue before recognizing Israel. Gulf states that have established formal ties with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords may pull back as well. They know their publics have soured on the deal; Netanyahu had to postpone an anticipated visit to the United Arab Emirates after Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount.

Israel is scheduled to play host to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Jan. 19 and Secretary of State Antony Blinken later in the month, ahead of Netanyahu’s anticipated visit to Washington in February. Both Sullivan and Blinken should emphasize that the shared interests of the US and Israel require Netanyahu to restrain his coalition members. There’s little incentive for Biden to expend political capital leaning on the Saudis, for instance, if Netanyahu’s own government is making the job harder.

Netanyahu has long chided US leaders not to let other issues distract from the Iranian threat. The least he can do is heed his own words.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Netanyahu’s New Partners Are Already Undermining Him: Hussein Ibish

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

• Netanyahu Must Find a Way to Govern for All Israelis: Editorial

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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

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