The far-right ministers in Israel’s newly installed government wasted no time in translating their hardline views into action. Ten days after taking up his new position, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich signed an order withholding $40 million in tax revenue owed to the Palestinian Authority, declaring, “as long as the Palestinian Authority encourages terror and is an enemy, I have no interest for it to continue to exist.”
Even more provocatively, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir toured Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif-Temple Mount soon after taking office, protected by the Israeli police forces that he now supervises. Ben-Gvir also ordered new restrictions on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, targeting a group that enjoys widespread support in Palestinian society. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir promised further action to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to oppose Palestinian national aspirations.
While anti-Palestinian measures from Israeli governments are not new, these far-right ministers seem intent on not merely challenging Palestinian actions they oppose but reordering the status quo in the West Bank. Indeed, a guiding principleof the new government is that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” language never used before by any previous government.
With Smotrich having gained control over the Civil Administration that exercises Israeli governmental authority in the West Bank, and Ben-Gvir overseeing the police that enforces Israeli law in Jerusalem, there are a great many points of friction between Israelis and Palestinians that could erupt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to calm critics and has declared that he is in charge, but the far-right ministers have the power and the inclination to drive the agenda vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The convergence of the holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover in early April looms as a dangerous potential flashpoint. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having receded from the international agenda in recent years, now seems poised to return in force.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah views the agenda of the new Israeli government as an existential threat to the Palestinian Authority (PA), pointing to the comments by Smotrich in withholding the tax revenue. So far, the Palestinians have reacted cautiously. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s leadership issued a strongly-worded statement and sought condemnation of Ben-Gvir’s walkabout by the United Nations Security Council. However, a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah took no action to suspend security coordination or implement other steps to curb interactions with Israel.
Hamas also limited its response to strong words. A Palestinian group launched a single rocket from Gaza after Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif-Temple Mount, but it did not reach Israeli territory and therefore did not trigger a response. From Arab governments, there were tough statements a well, but meetings with Israeli and U.S. delegations to advance the Abraham Accords proceeded as scheduled.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his closest advisors fear that widespread unrest in the West Bank will ultimately harm the Palestinians more than Israel and will threaten Abbas’ continued rule and succession. The Ramallah leadership has few good cards to play in response to Israeli provocations, and the PA’s weakness is becoming self-reinforcing, with its muted reactions further undermining the PA in the eyes of the Palestinian public and contributing to a vicious cycle of weakness and decay. For its part, Hamas seeks to maintain quiet in Gaza to avoid another damaging war with Israel, but it is eager to instigate trouble in the West Bank to impose costs on Israel and further undermine its rivals in Ramallah.
But even as Abbas hopes to contain the situation, there is a strong probability that popular discontent will boil over in response to further provocative steps from the hardliners in Israel, regardless of the views of the leadership. The Palestinian public is already quite agitated due to nearly daily confrontations between Israeli occupation forces and Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank, resulting in a growing number of Palestinian casualties. Any new provocation at the Haram al-Sharif-Temple Mount or further targeting of Palestinian prisoners would be particularly sensitive and could easily trigger widespread clashes.
In the two years since President Joe Biden took office, his administration’s foreign policy has not emphasized the Middle East, focusing instead on the competition with China and the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden has also sought to avoid the public disagreements with Israel that plagued the Obama administration. However, the extremism of the new Israeli government and the prospect of a sharp downturn in Israeli-Palestinian relations will demand Washington’s renewed attention.
The Biden administration is clearly aware of the potential for problems ahead, and it is rolling out a sequence of senior-level visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah, including by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to urge restraint. Blinken has spoken out as well, saying the United States would “[c]ontinue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, but not limited to, settlement expansion; moves toward annexation of the West Bank; disruption to the historic status quo at holy sites; demolitions and evictions; and incitement to violence.”
But speeches and one-off visits will not be sufficient to prevent the train wreck that is looming. Only an active U.S. diplomatic effort offers the hope of pulling the two sides back from the brink. The Biden administration should engage at the international level, especially with Israel’s new partners in the Arab world, to construct a set of incentives and disincentives to motivate Israelis and Palestinians to lower the temperature and avoid confrontation.
For example, the Abraham Accords offer the possibility that Israel could enjoy even greater engagement in the region, but the accords cannot flourish and grow if Israeli measures lead to clashes over the holy places in Jerusalem or widespread disorder in the West Bank. Likewise, the Palestinians could benefit from greater political and economic support from the Arab world, but this will not happen if the PA cannot organize itself to govern its population effectively and legitimately.
In addition, the United States should attempt to establish an ongoing dialogue on the ground involving the two parties to address the political and security problems that fester more each day. While a permanent solution to the conflict is something for the future, a mechanism is needed now to address problems before they become even more intractable. None of this will be easy, especially with such an extreme government in Israel, but proactive diplomacy by the United States at this moment is necessary to avoid a much worse situation in the weeks and months ahead and to preserve some hope that the two peoples can live together peacefully in the future.