Palestine Under the Yoke of Netanyahu’s “New” Government

Viktor Mikhin
The visit of Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem has caused an uproar among Palestinians and in Arab and international circles. Even within Israel itself, it led to resentment because of the serious consequences the visit would have on stability in the Palestinian territories. Especially after Palestinian factions had made it clear that they would not tolerate such incursions.

Ben Gvir’s trip, which had been personally approved by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was accompanied by unprecedented Israeli sanctions against members of the Palestinian Authority. Added to this are punitive financial measures in response to Palestinian actions in the UN, taken with the full support of Arab countries. At Palestine’s request, the UN passed a resolution referring the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories to the International Court of Justice for a legal opinion on the nature of the Israeli occupation and Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power.

Israeli sanctions include revoking the safe-conducts of prominent Palestinian officials, including Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Fatah deputy leader Mahmoud al-Aloul, and other key Fatah members. Israel also seized 139 million shekels ($40 million) in tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority under agreements signed by both parties. During a cabinet meeting, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned that these consistent Israeli measures could lead to the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which is already in serious financial and economic difficulties. “The total amount of Israeli contributions since 2019 is two billion shekels [$570 million],” Shtayyeh said. “These steps are a new war against the Palestinian people and their fate. This is a war against the Palestinian Authority, its existence and its achievements.”

Many Israelis warn that additional raids could result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA), according to Israeli Army Radio. The government, though, still insists that its actions directed against the PA are well-thought-out and won’t actually cause it to break down. It is however hard to believe. The Palestinian flag is not permitted to be flown in any Arab cities in the occupied territories or in any other locations that are under Israeli control, among other stringent steps that Ben Gvir himself has implemented. After the boisterous celebrations honoring Karim Younis’ release from Wadi Ara in northern Israel, this ban was notably reinforced. The Palestinian spent 40 years in prison as punishment for his participation in an operation carried out by the Israeli army itself, in which an Israeli was killed.

As a further provocation, Ben-Gvir visited Israeli prisons and ordered Israeli flags to be hoisted outside the cells housing Palestinian prisoners accused of attacking Israel, i.e., in the territory inhabited by the Palestinians themselves. He also ordered the transfer of prominent Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, to high-security solitary confinement to prevent him from meeting with Palestinian leaders in other prisons. This unprovoked action by Israeli prison guards has exacerbated tensions among many Palestinian prisoners.

The far-right policies of Netanyahu’s administration, which was sworn in late last year, are foreshadowed by all of these moves. The PA has issued a warning that this cabinet will be harsher on the Palestinians, and even Washington has taken some action to prevent early conflicts and disputes between the US government of President Joe Biden and Tel Aviv, whose main tool at this point has evolved into the extreme right-wing pro-Israel lobby in the United States. According to Israeli media, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are actively attempting to alleviate anticipated tensions between both governments. Netanyahu, though, is the one who has gained notoriety for adamantly rejecting requests from Washington, regardless of which administration is in power.

Following Ben-Gvir’s unfortunate visit to al-Aqsa, Washington, under international pressure, reiterated the need to preserve the status quo of the holy sites in occupied Jerusalem and reaffirmed its support for the two-state solution as the way to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said the new Israeli government is a puzzle for Biden’s team, which wants to shift attention from the Middle East to rivals such as China and Russia. This comes at a time when Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives and are trying to paint Biden as anti-Israel in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. It should be remembered that there is a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US that could significantly influence the outcome of future election.

According to the newspaper, the potential disagreements between Washington and Tel Aviv go far beyond warnings that escalating tensions with the Palestinians is unacceptable. There is also the issue of Russia and Iran, on which both capitals have their own opinions, often differing in substance. Tel Aviv takes a more aggressive stance toward Iran and seeks a preemptive strike, while Washington still wants to conclude a so-called nuclear deal, at least in words. There is also some disagreement on Russia. The Biden administration wants Tel Aviv to take a more pro-American stance on the US self-inflicted armed conflict of NATO in Ukraine.

Other issues are also causing tension between the two sides. New judicial reforms announced by Israel’s far-right Justice Minister Yariv Levin have also sparked outrage in Israel because they undermine the authority of the judiciary. The Israeli opposition believes that these measures are intended to protect Netanyahu from further corruption charges against him, at the expense of destroying the Israeli judiciary. These are fears and objections also voiced by US officials against anything that attacks the authority and independence of the Israeli judiciary. The Walla news website quoted unnamed US State Department officials as saying that the general principles of democracy are at the heart of US-Israel relations, but that the actions of the new Israeli government are troubling because they threaten Israel’s democratic institutions. According to the US official, judicial reform could affect the democratic system in Israel in a way that could undermine Israel-US relations, which are based not only on shared interests but also on shared values.

The same sentiment prevails in Israel itself. As many as 80,000 Israelis gathered in downtown Tel Aviv to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to reform the legal system and weaken the power of the Supreme Court. The protest was the first challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has ordered police to crack down if protesters (Palestinian or Israeli) block roads, obstruct traffic or display Palestinian flags.

Netanyahu, who is under trial for corruption, has made reform of the legal system a centerpiece of his agenda. His government has put forward proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overturn court decisions by a simple majority. It also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and limit the independence of legal advisers. Leading Israeli opposition politicians, former attorneys general and the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court have spoken out against the plan. The legal changes could help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, avoid a conviction or even stop the trial altogether. Since his indictment in 2019, Netanyahu has claimed that the judicial system is allegedly biased against him, and that is why he is actively campaigning to change Israel’s entire legal system. As the saying goes, this entire mystery is easily solved.

Fears of military escalation between armed Palestinian groups in Gaza and Israel, especially as these groups have warned that any attempt to change the status quo in occupied Jerusalem is a red line that must not be crossed, have arisen after the new Israeli government has come to power. Following Ben-Gvir’s deplorable visit to al-Aqsa, the Israeli army reported a failed attempt to fire a rocket from Gaza into Israeli territory, which Israeli analysts say is a sign that clashes with factions in Gaza may begin again.

Meanwhile, Palestinians are calling on Washington, which supplies the state of Israel with huge amounts of military equipment and generously subsidizes its budget every year, to intervene and block steps announced by the right-wing Israeli government that may soon be implemented. According to Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the Palestinians are aware that Washington is unlikely to exert significant pressure on the Israelis, and therefore also call on Arab countries and the world to strongly oppose Israeli abuses and violations. Prominent Palestinian officials have stated that they may take decisions to review relations with Israel in response to the new government’s actions. However, the Palestinian Authority does not have a clear plan of action for this resolution and its political and economic implications, especially given internal Palestinian dissents and the fact that much of the world is now distracted by more pressing political and security concerns.