Israel’s new radical leadership wastes no time provoking anger

Itamar Ben-Gvir leads incursion into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem - January 3, 2023 (Social media)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  January 6, 2023

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s raid of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound has strained the [so-called] Abraham Accords and made it harder for Arab states to justify continued normalization with Israel.

On January 3, Israel’s new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir of the fascist Jewish Power party visited Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, in an attempt to stir controversy. He succeeded. 

The United Nations Security Council called an urgent meeting on Thursday to discuss this incident, after many countries voiced their outrage. Even the United States had some mild criticism of Israel over this. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said:

“The United States stands firmly for the preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo, they are unacceptable…We took note of the fact that Netanyahu’s governing platform calls for the preservation of the historic status quo with relation to the holy places. We expect him to follow through with that commitment… in word and in practice, that is what we will be watching for.”

The U.K., France, Turkey, Jordan, Russia and other countries also criticized Israel for this provocation. But perhaps most noteworthy was the fact that, joining China, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority in calling for the Security Council meeting was none other than the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s new BFF in the Persian Gulf. 

Straining the Abraham Accords

This shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. While the UAE has tried to embrace even this radically right wing government, their foreign minister also warned Benjamin Netanyahu back in September that a government this brazenly devoted to apartheid and overt, violent racism could make it difficult for the Emiratis to maintain their détente with Israel. 

The UAE’s statement on Tuesday objecting to Ben-Gvir’s action was strongly worded, stating that they “strongly condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.” it also hinted that the Emiratis were determined to hold on to the Abraham Accords if they could, stating that they “stressed the need to support all regional and international efforts to advance the Middle East Peace Process [sic].” 

But this was far from the only stress on the Accords. Oman, which many analysts had thought might be the next Arab state to establish normal relations with Israel, instead passed a new law criminalizing all contacts with Israel. This not only dashed hopes in Jerusalem and Washington that Oman would join the Abraham Accords, it signaled a sharp reversal in policy for the Gulf sultanate. 

While Oman has never officially established normal relations with Israel, it became the first Gulf country to allow a visit from an Israeli prime minister when Yitzhak Rabin visited in 1994. It later hosted Shimon Peres and Netanyahu, the latter as recently as 2018. While Oman cut off communication with Israel in 2000 due to the second intifada, unofficial contacts continued. 

Sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Oman has long played the role of mediator, and, as a result, has worked to maintain lines of communications between adversaries in the Middle East. While it is close to its fellow Arab states in the Gulf, it also shares a crucial, and large, natural gas field with Iran. Last year, Iran and Oman agreed to jointly develop the field and this strengthened Oman’s strong desire to maintain good relations with Iran as well as with adversaries of the Islamic Republic. While that includes Israel, the value of Omani-Israeli relations to the sultanate pales before its relationship with both Iran and the Arab Gulf states. 

While the vote in Muscat coincided with Ben-Gvir’s appearance at the Temple Mount, it had been in the works for several weeks, prompted by a desire “to distinguish [Oman] from the UAE and Bahrain,” although Oman also recently declared its continued support for a two-state solution in Palestine. 

Meanwhile, Morocco has been threatening to back off of its pledge to open an embassy in Israel if Israel does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The previous Israeli government walked a fine line, hinting at support for Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara, (which has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975) and maintaining the international consensus on the issue, stating that it supported Morocco’s “autonomy plan,” which has never been accepted by the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara. 

The new government seems very likely to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, but the dispute demonstrates the pitfalls of the transactional nature of the Abraham Accords. Arab states must constantly weigh the benefits of normalization with Israel against the costs of betraying the Palestinians and thereby drawing the ire of their own populations and most of the Arab world. 

All of this occurs in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s discussion with new Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen regarding how the U.S. might help expand the Accords. This seems to be another example of the detachment from reality that has characterized Blinken’s and Joe Biden’s approach to Palestine and Israel from the start of their administration.

The goal for both Israel and the United States has been to get Saudi Arabia to join the Accords, but despite grandiose statements from Israeli leaders, the Saudis remain aloof from American and Israeli efforts to draw them into the Accords. 

The political winds are blowing against the idea of expanding the Accords. The ongoing protests in Iran continue to occupy the attention of the Islamic Republic’s leaders, and, contrary to the view of some western analysts, Iran does not have a history of trying to solve its domestic problems by launching attacks against other countries. That means that, at least for the moment, Iran is less of a concern for Gulf Arab states. That diminishes the incentive to expand cooperation with Israel. 

With Ben-Gvir wasting no time in aggravating the one issue — Al-Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount — that is not only a sore point for the Palestinians but raises personal and direct concerns for people throughout the Middle East, and with it becoming clear that the existence of normalization agreements does not deter the Israeli radicals from taking such actions, there is even less reason for Arab states to cooperate with Washington in normalizing relations with Israel. To the contrary, these increasingly arrogant and provocative actions by Israel don’t merely raise serious concerns for the UAE and other Abraham Accords participants; it also raises worries anew in Egypt and, especially, Jordan. Both countries have maintained long term peace accords with Israel, against the wishes of the vast majority of their citizens.

Biden will still have an opportunity to prevail upon his “good friend,” Netanyahu to rein in Ben-Gvir and the other overt Kahanists in the Israeli government. But even if he’s willing to cooperate on that point, that’s not Netanyahu’s priority right now as he seeks to cripple the Israeli judiciary that is still trying to convict him for some of his crimes and harden Israel’s iron fist over the Palestinians. 

The future of the Accords

In the end, this current crisis is likely to pass. Oman will continue to communicate with Israel clandestinely, and the UAE will try to get back to business as usual. But this new government, filled with characters, even beyond Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, who delight in provoking violence and publicly expressing their racism, bigotry, and hate has made it clear it will continue doing what they love so much.

On only the fifth day of 2023, Israel killed its third Palestinian youth. In its cabinet meeting yesterday, options were discussed for punishing the Palestinians for having pushed the UN to bring their case to International Court of Justice, a resolution which all of their friends among the Arab dictators supported. 

There will be no shortage of actions which will make it more difficult for the Abraham Accords to survive, let alone for them to expand. This demonstrates that the Accords are not related to peace, to improved relations in the region, or to stability. They can’t possibly have those goals in mind when they depend entirely on the Palestinians doing what they have never done: acquiescing to Israeli domination. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics