Caught between a far-right coalition and the prospect of deeper ties with the Arab world, Netanyahu is struggling to strike a balance between his government’s constituents and his would-be allies in the Gulf states.
The provocative visit of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right Israeli lawmaker and the country’s new Minister of National Security, to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem has sparked recriminations not only among the Palestinians and the Jordanian government, but among the Gulf Arab states—even those which have established diplomatic ties with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords. Although the conventional wisdom since the signing of these agreements in September 2020 has been that these states will go their own way in terms of relations with Israel regardless of public sentiment toward the Palestinian issue, the provocations of Israeli extremists like Ben-Gvir are likely to stress Israel’s bilateral relationships with Manama and Abu Dhabi.
In the cabinet position horse trading that follows every Israeli election, Ben-Gvir, who has long been involved in the Israeli settler movement and was once convicted of inciting racism against Arabs, was able to secure the position of National Security Minister, a reflection of his party’s strength in the coalition government led by longtime Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben-Gvir’s new position puts him in charge of the Israeli police. He is likely to be an influential voice not only in favor of expanding settlements in the West Bank, but possibly annexing occupied Palestinian territory altogether.
The Evolution of Extremism
Ben-Gvir has flirted with provocation in the past. In May 2021, his vehement support for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood contributed to an 11-day outburst of violence between Hamas and Israel. He has also long advocated a change in the policy concerning visits to the area of the Haram al-Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam containing the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which the Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Jordan has acted as custodian of this area, and the Jordanian Waqf (religious foundation) currently prohibits any non-Muslim prayer at the site.
Unfortunately, the Haram al-Sharif has been the catalyst for several major disturbances in the past. In 2000, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, with hundreds of security personnel in tow, marched into the area in an effort to derail then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s efforts to try to reach a peace deal with PLO leader Yasir Arafat. Sharon’s effort was (at least from his perspective) successful, sparking the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) and rendering the proposed peace agreement politically untenable for either side. Sharon’s provocation won him extreme popularity among right-wing Israelis and helped to spawn a similarly militant approach among other Israeli lawmakers. During his own visit to the site—only a few days after the new Israeli government was sworn in—Ben-Gvir defiantly tweeted: “The Temple Mount is open to everyone and if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me, it will deter me, let them understand that times have changed.”
Although Netanyahu in the past had warned against changing the status quo of the holy site, this time he was silent on Ben-Gvir’s stunt in the face of domestic, regional, and international condemnation. Indeed, the new minister’s actions were resoundingly popular among Netanyahu’s supporters, particularly among ultra-religious Orthodox Jews long opposed to the ban on Jewish worship on the Temple Mount. While the prime minister has said that his hands are “on the steering wheel”—meaning that he, not his ministers, will direct his government’s policies—he obviously refrained from criticizing Ben-Gvir to avoid an early split within his coalition.
What the Neighbors Think
However, such controversies pose a problem for Netanyahu’s foreign policy because he has long expressed an interest in deepening Israel’s commercial and security ties with the Gulf. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, the first two signatories to the Abraham Accords, agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without first insisting on the settlement of the Palestinian issue—a demand that all other Arab nations had previously required as a precondition for engagement with the Jewish state. After the UAE and Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan also agreed to establish relations, although only Morocco has done so as of 2023. Netanyahu has long wished to sideline the Palestinian issue and gain acceptance from the Arab states; thus, the Abraham Accords were presented to Israelis as a major diplomatic victory.
However, there is only so far that Arab states will go to deepen ties with Israel. Although many of them share Israel’s antipathy towards Iran and want to develop commercial ties with Israel’s high-tech economy, the issues of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with the broader question of Palestinian rights and statehood, remain very sensitive with their publics. Stunts like those of Ben-Gvir make such governments apprehensive of greater engagement with Tel Aviv. For this reason, the UAE—one of the original signatories of the Abraham Accords—“strongly condemned” Ben-Gvir’s “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque” and called on the Israeli government to “halt serious and provocative violations taking place there.” Other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, also condemned the incident.
Netanyahu has done little to disguise his desire for Saudi Arabia, the largest of the GCC states and the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, to join the Abraham Accords. After his electoral victory in late 2022, reports circulated that the new Israeli government would try to elicit the support of the Biden administration in convincing Riyadh of the benefits of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. However, after the Biden team also criticized Ben-Gvir’s act as having “the potential to exacerbate tensions and provoke violence,” the prospects for Riyadh establishing diplomatic ties with Israel in the near term are now far less promising.
No Good Way Forward
Ben-Gvir’s actions are unlikely to prompt states with existing ties to Israel to cut them overnight. However, the increasingly confrontational behavior from Israel’s far right does mean that the idea of deepening diplomatic relations will probably be put off for the time being. The Gulf states are afraid of upsetting their publics, particularly on the religiously sensitive issue of Jerusalem, which transcends the Palestinian issue.
All of this poses a problem for Netanyahu. He is likely to come under political pressure from his right-wing coalition partners to support the construction of more settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and even the annexation of the latter. On the other hand, Netanyahu knows that any of these policies would likely kill his attempts to engage with the Gulf Arab states, not to mention that they would severely strain Tel Aviv’s ties to Washington and the European Union.
But for Netanyahu, self-preservation seems all-consuming. The prime minister still has corruption charges hanging over his head, and he probably hopes that by staying in power he can obtain immunity from prosecution. This means that even though he may not agree with all of the extremist policies of Ben-Gvir and other far-right coalition members, he will be reluctant to rein these actors in out of a desire to protect his own position. If more of these provocative acts and policies take place—an outcome that seems increasingly certain—his outreach to the Gulf states is likely to fail.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.