February 6, 2023
At the end of January Secretary of State Blinken visited Egypt where he met with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and President El-Sisi. His remarks there were full of praise for Egypt and the strategic partnership between the two countries. In remarks to the press with the Minister he also said:
“Making tangible and lasting improvements on human rights is essential to strengthening even more our bilateral relationship. It’s a priority for members of our Congress from both of our parties. And it’s fundamentally in the interest of the Egyptian people, which is why I know the President is pursuing these efforts.”
In brief, it was a well-known routine.
His visit to Israel understandably received more attention.
At the end of December 2022, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he successfully formed a new coalition, setting the stage for him to return to power.
As Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu has done great services to his country. He has successfully steered the Trump administration’s Middle East policy to Israel’s advantage and secured firstly, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by Washington, and secondly, the normalization of relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco through the “Abraham Accords”. These countries reached out to Israel because while Iran exports revolution, Israel exports technology and know-how. All of this makes the question of Palestine a secondary issue.
Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure as Israel’s prime minister ended in June 2021 with the Knesset approving a new “government of change” led by Mr. Naftali Bennett. But with his insatiable appetite for power, there was no way for Mr. Netanyahu could call it quits. Thus, after Israel’s fifth election since April 2019, he came back heading the most far-right and religious ultra-Orthodox Israeli government ever to hold office, deepening Israel’s polarization.
It was clear from day one that he would face challenges from his own far-right coalition partners, and his government’s actions would lead to new confrontations with the Palestinians.
First came the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary triggering wide protests. Chief justice Esther Hayut issued a public warning in response to the plan backed by Mr. Netanyahu which includes limiting High Court rulings against government moves or laws passed by the Knesset as well as increasing politicians’ say in the selection of judges.
This was followed by a High Court ruling that Shas’ Arye Deri cannot serve as a minister in the government because of his past crimes but the matter is not resolved yet.
And last Wednesday, to underline the democratic nature of his country, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Prime Minister Netanyahu that he cannot be involved in his government’s efforts to radically overhaul the legal and judicial system because he has a conflict of interests due to his ongoing corruption trial.[i] All of these were political issues with a separation of powers dimension. Reportedly, President Macron also raised concerns about the overhaul during his talks with Mr. Netanyahu in Paris, last Friday.
Finally, on Saturday, opposition leader Yair Lapid said Friday he would not hold negotiations with the coalition, since the government was not seeking reform but “regime change.”[ii] In Türkiye, we perfectly understand what he means.
There were also domestic security challenges. The visit by Israeli radical right-wing Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir to the Temple Mount raised tensions. On January 26, Israeli commandos killed seven gunmen and two civilians in a raid in the town of Jenin in the occupied West Bank. The next day, seven people were killed in a terrorist attack outside a synagogue in a Jerusalem neighborhood. Then, a 13-year-old Palestinian shot an Israeli father and son in East Jerusalem. In the wake of the Jerusalem terror attacks, it was reported that thousands of gun permits will be approved each month with a massive expansion of the National Security Ministry’s licensing division, Mr. Ben-Gvir announced last Thursday.
The overhaul of the judiciary and the future of Arye Deri are Israel’s domestic problems. But most unfortunately, they set a bad example for regional countries despite claims about Israel being the region’s only democracy. In Türkiye, for example, total disregard for the separation of powers and the appointments of judges and prosecutors continue to undermine trust in the judiciary. And easing the rules for having guns particularly when gun control has become such a huge problem in the US boggles the mind. This, again, is a problem in Türkiye with public security problems.
It was under these troubling circumstances that Secretary Blinken made his second visit to Israel and the Occupied West Bank.
All Mr. Netanyahu could say to welcome Mr. Blinken during the latter’s first visit to Israel as Secretary of State, on May 23, 2021, was the following:
“Secretary Blinken, Tony, welcome to Jerusalem, your first visit as the Secretary of State. I have – since we’re running – we had a long discussion, and we’re running late, so I want to be very brief and speak about three points…”
At the time I could not but observe the difference between the foregoing and the warm welcome Mr. Netanyahu had extended to Secretary Pompeo in April 2018. [iii]
This time, Prime Minister Netanyahu was more generous. After the talks, he called the visit another expression of the unbreakable bond between Israel and the US, one of the great alliances of modern history. He said:
“This alliance is something that President Biden is committed to. I’ve known him for 40 years. He’s a true friend of Israel, a true champion of this alliance, as are you. I’m not sure that all of Israel know your own contribution in helping us with missile defense in times of peril. You’ve actually helped us during one crisis in record time and then did so again; and you’ve also just helped us push back on the attempts to delegitimize Israel in the United Nations. And we’re grateful for that and for your continual friendship.”
Then Mr. Netanyahu underlined once again that his policy is to do everything within Israel’s power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. As for the Palestinian issue, making an indirect reference to the Abraham Accords, he said that the “expanding circle of peace would also help Israel achieve a workable solution with its Palestinian neighbors”.
Secretary Blinken said the talks were very productive, very candid, and important and covered a lot of issues. He stressed that America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad. Mentioning the two-states vision, he said, “anything that moves us away from that vision is, in our judgment, detrimental to Israel’s long-term security and its long-term identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” adding, “We also remain committed to supporting religious coexistence and diversity, including in Jerusalem. We continue to support upholding the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy places, including the Temple Mount Haram al-Sharif.” He also mentioned Iran and the war in Ukraine. [iv]
After his meeting with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Secretary Blinken defined America’s goal as Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal measures of democracy, opportunity, and dignity in their lives. He said, “We believe that that can be achieved by a realization of two states. President Biden remains committed to that goal.”
One may assume that Secretary Blinken was more forceful in his comments behind closed doors than in his public remarks about the two-state vision, the need for de-escalation, and the imperative to uphold the standards of democracy. The reality is Prime Minister Netanyahu could not care less and there is not much Washington can do. The usual “expressions of concern” will not make him change his path.
Last Thursday Israel conducted airstrikes on the Gaza Strip after the military said it intercepted a rocket fired from the Palestinian territory. Hopefully, this would not turn into another chapter of costly violence like in May 2021.
For now, the West remains focused on the war in Ukraine. China-US relations are on a rough road. The JCPOA is on the shelf if not in the dustbin of history. Protests in Iran are continuing. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran are on the rise. Israel’s leaders are continuing with tough talk about Iran. The West and China are more interested in ensuring energy security with uninterrupted supplies from the Middle East than anything else. So, it is time for regional countries to try, for once, to address a few regional problems. Unfortunately, however, none of them can see beyond their borders, what dangers await them. Everything is about domestic politics and strongmen perpetuating their hold on power.
The devastating earthquake that hit Türkiye and Syria this morning only underlines the urgency of bringing peace to the area, a hotbed of trouble for more than a decade.