Statements by key officials in the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have fuelled a rare argument between the US and Israel, after Israel announced that it was rescinding obligations made at the Aqaba Conference in Jordan that brought together Palestinian and Israeli officials for the first time in years under Egyptian-US-Jordanian supervision at the end of February.
Soon after the conference, Netanyahu said that his government had not made any commitments about halting settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The same thing was reiterated by key cabinet members Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar ben Gvir, both known for their extremist views, who mocked the outcomes of the meeting as if it had not taken place.
The tensions were further compounded after statements by Smotrich called for the Palestinian village of Hawara near Nablus in the northern West Bank to be “wiped off the map”. Hundreds of Israeli settlers carried out attacks on Palestinian homes and properties in the village last week and burned them to the ground.
According to the Israeli Broadcast Corporation, Washington has asked for clarification from Israel about rescinding its commitments made at the Aqaba Conference, noting that key US officials had been angered by the contradiction between what the Israeli representatives said at the meeting and what the ministers said afterwards.
This has cast a dark shadow over the US-Israel strategic dialogue forum formed to discuss the issue of Iran and a visit by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Israel. Austin has called on Israeli officials to dial back the escalation and violence in the West Bank, the same point he made with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman on Sunday.
After the Aqaba meeting, the Israeli army repeatedly stormed the Aqabat Jabr Refugee Camp in Jericho, killing one Palestinian and arresting many others whom it claimed were associated with a shooting that had killed two Israelis near the city.
Ben Gvir instructed the Israeli police to continue demolishing Palestinian homes in Occupied East Jerusalem during the upcoming month of Ramadan, despite warnings that this would spark major escalation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
“I wish everyone a blessed Ramadan, but that does not mean that we will sit by and surrender to those who break the law because of the advent of this month,” Ben-Gvir said. Israeli reports said that senior officials in the country’s security agencies had recommended a halt in the demolitions in Jerusalem in order to avoid a widespread escalation that could extend to different areas.
Smotrich’s call to wipe out a Palestinian village further fanned tensions between Tel Aviv and Washington, with the latter describing the comments as “repugnant, disgusting.” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides expressed his anger in an unprecedented manner, tweeting that “Smotrich’s a fool” and suggested that the Israeli minister should be boycotted during his visit to Washington next week.
According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the administration of US President Joe Biden has decided not to hold any official meetings with Smotrich on this trip, and US Jewish organisations have urged that he should be denied a visa to the US.
Smotrich will be attending the annual conference of the Israel Bonds Organisation to raise funds from Diaspora Jewry.
The newspaper report said that Smotrich will not be allowed to enter the White House or meet with his US counterpart Janet Yellen or any other government officials. It said that more than 330 rabbis and other leaders of Jewish communities in the US, including the largest conservative and reform communities, had decided to boycott religious Zionism leaders in the present Israeli government.
After much pressure, Smotrich apologised for his statement on Saturday, explaining that it was a “slip of the tongue” and accusing unnamed parties of trying to tarnish his image and campaign against him.
He added that while burning homes and vehicles by Israeli settlers in the Palestinian village of Hawara constituted “a very serious national crime, it is not terrorism.”
The crisis triggered by Smotrich’s statements coincided with growing protests in Israel opposing the judicial reform plan promoted by Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, which is strongly rejected by the opposition. Washington has also objected to the plans, which are seen as undermining the judicial system in Israel.
After nine weeks of protests, Israel’s opposition organised the largest demonstration against the plans so far on Saturday. Some 160,000 Israelis took part at 95 locations across the country.
Despite statements by Israeli President Isaac Herzog about progress in resolving the crisis, the Israeli opposition has refused to begin any talks until the government suspends steps to legislate to force the judicial reform plans through.
Members of the US Congress urged Biden to intervene to stop plans by the Israeli governing coalition to reform the judiciary by “using every possible diplomatic tool.”
The successive blows to Netanyahu’s government have fuelled fears in the US administration that the Israeli government could make an uncalculated military move in the Middle East, specifically against Iran, to end the current crisis, according to Yedioth Ahronoth.
The newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying that out of a concern that Israel will launch a war in the Middle East, Biden had decided last week to send Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley to speak with his Israeli counterpart Herzi Halevi, as well as with US Secretary of Defence Austin.
It said that the Biden administration had once again warned Netanyahu against taking any action that could destabilise the Palestinian situation before or during Ramadan. It had also warned against Ben Gvir’s earlier visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the newspaper said.
Such prominent rifts will add to the challenge the Netanyahu government faces in restoring Israel’s strategic relationship with the US. This is especially important when Tel Aviv is working on creating a lobby to promote a preemptive strike against Iran, after it was revealed that Tehran is close to acquiring enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly