Israeli moves in the West Bank cause new frictions with Biden administration
Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s announcement targeting the six Palestinian groups, allowing authorities to freeze their funds and potentially arrest their leaders, drew a rare rebuke from the U.S. State Department, which complained of being caught off guard and asked to see the evidence behind the decision.
More tough words followed after the Israeli government gave the go-ahead to about 3,000 new homes in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
These moves are also straining Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s sprawling coalition ahead of a make-or-break vote in parliament on a government budget, raising the prospect that the unlikely alliance of right-wing, left-wing and Arab parties could fracture just months after it wrested power from Benjamin Netanyahu.
These parties took office pledging to set aside hot-button issues to focus on Israel’s recovery from the pandemic and restore regular governing procedures after more than two years of political deadlock. The new government has enjoyed a four-month honeymoon, winning accolades for overseeing a decline in coronavirus cases without another national lockdown.
“Really, the fact they have been functioning so far is a miracle,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is a coalition of the extremes, from left and right.”
But the relative calm evaporated late this month. Left-leaning members of the coalition were infuriated by the move to designate the Palestinian rights groups as terrorist organizations, and these lawmakers said they had not been informed in advance. They warned that the coalition’s fragile unity could not survive ideological freelancing.
The parliament, or Knesset, has until Nov. 4 to pass the final budget, or new elections could be automatically triggered. The failure to adopt a budget brought down the previous coalition at the end of 2020, leading to Israel’s fourth election in just two years.
The leader of the Labor Party said Gantz’s move had damaged Israel’s relations with Washington and Europe. The left-wing Meretz Party accused Gantz of pandering to right-wing nationalists. “Meretz won’t be in a government of that kind,” Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said in an interview with the Maariv newspaper.
Coalition members said they were also caught unaware by the decision to approve the new settlement homes, and several lawmakers met with Bennett to complain about the string of surprises, according to reports in Israeli media.
A diplomat in the region familiar with the situation confirmed reports that the Biden administration had conveyed to Israeli officials its anger over the planned construction. The administration was displeased not only that Israel had ignored President Biden’s explicit opposition to settlement expansion, but also that many of the new homes would be in outposts deep in the West Bank and not just in established settlements close to Jerusalem.
This diplomat said officials in several foreign governments were puzzled by Israel’s recent actions and their timing. The designation of human rights groups, for example, included al-Haq, a 40-year-old organization that has collaborated with Western governments and international advocacy groups.
“We’ve worked closely with Shawan [Jabarin, the head of al-Haq] for decades,” said Karin Ryan, senior adviser for human rights for the Carter Center in Atlanta. “We have confidence in the work of al-Haq.”
The group has been fiercely critical of the Israeli occupation but has also documented alleged cases of illegal detention and torture by Palestinian security forces. The group was involved in getting the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation into Israeli and Palestinian actions.
Jabarin, speaking in his office in Ramallah, denied having any involvement with terrorist groups. He said he was on his way to The Hague to meet with the court when he got word of Israel’s designation. He accused Israel of trying to silence his group’s international efforts.
“I think we crossed a red line in seeking this kind of accountability,” Jabarin said.
Gantz has pushed back against criticism, insisting that the government has evidence that al-Haq, like the other groups, is “an arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” a Marxist-Leninist movement with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks on civilians. Israel has dispatched envoys to Washington to lay out its case against the groups.
In response to criticism from Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, head of the Labor Party, Gantz’s Blue and White party suggested that she “not interfere in the war on terror.”
Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military, said designating the groups as terrorist organizations has been a possibility for years, following extensive investigations. “There is the involvement of individuals who are connected to PFLP, which is definitely a terror organization,” said Eisin. “The connection is there.”
But she questioned the timing of the announcement and the way it was made public. “There is an obtuseness in the way that Israel handled it,” she said.
Coalition leaders have beseeched members to keep their eye on the budget deadline and called for a “bonding” meeting Friday.
Political observers in Israel said the widening gaps in the coalition were probably not yet enough to make them overlook the reason they all agreed to join forces in the first place: to oust Netanyahu. The longtime prime minister, now the leader of the opposition, has been delighting in the coalition infighting and calling on his supporters to “head out into the streets” in protest.
Every one of his tweets is a reminder to nervous coalition members, said Udi Sommer, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. “It’s very clear that if the coalition falls apart, Netanyahu will assume office again,” he said.
By Steve Hendrix and and Shira Rubin