Dropping the Pretense of Israel’s Obsession With Security

What is clear after observing the current Netanyahu government’s actions over the nearly three months it has been in power is that security has almost nothing to do with anything that it is contemplating.
March 23, 2023

Any analyst of Israeli policy worth their salt knows that the animating feature of Israeli government decision-making is security. It is what drove the Labor government’s earliest settlement policies, it is what drove peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, it is what drove the Gaza disengagement, and it has been the core Israeli concern in final-status issues in every round of negotiations with the Palestinians. The reason Israel remains in the West Bank is security, and Israeli governments—no matter their political leanings—prioritize it above all else.

Or at least, they did. What is clear after observing the current Netanyahu government’s actions over the nearly three months it has been in power is that security has almost nothing to do with anything that it is contemplating. The obsession with passing a judicial overhaul come hell or high water as it tears the IDF apart from within and distracts its top commanders, including its chief of staff, is only the most visible example. A very brief tour of events this week alone shows how not only is security taking a back seat to ideology, but how the government is determined to plow ahead even when security is demonstrably negatively impacted by something that the government is doing.

On Sunday, Israel participated in a five-way meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh with the U.S., Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians, which was a follow-up to a similar meeting in Aqaba at the end of February. As in February, the meeting was dedicated to finding ways for Israel and the Palestinians to cooperate on security and de-escalation in the West Bank, keep Jerusalem quiet ahead of Ramadan by not making any changes to the status quo on the Temple Mount, and find some way of restoring a political horizon for an agreement between the two sides that primarily involves Israel refraining from unilaterally expanding its footprint in the West Bank through new settlement construction and retroactive legalization of illegal outposts. And as in February, when the Israeli government issued a joint communiqué with the other parties and then disavowed it later the very same day, the Israeli government went back on the spirit of its commitments almost immediately, this time waiting a whole day before repealing the 2005 disengagement law, instantly transforming territory in the northern West Bank that was illegal for Israelis to enter into fertile ground for a spate of new illegal outposts. This move also sparked a new level of crisis with the U.S., drawing not only a strong condemnation from the State Department but a summons for Israeli Ambassador Mike Herzog to meet with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Unlike his Knesset colleagues, Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich did not bother waiting until Monday. Speaking in Paris on the same day that the Israeli government committed in writing to “advancing security, stability and peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and recognized the necessity of de-escalation on the ground, the prevention of further violence, as well as of pursuing confidence building measures, enhancing mutual trust, creating political horizon, and addressing outstanding issues through direct dialogue,” Smotrich told his audience that there is “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people.” Undoubtedly, Smotrich was thinking about his security responsibilities as the second-highest-ranking Defense Ministry official when he said that the same Palestinians with whom Israel had just met in Egypt “invent a fictitious people in the Land of Israel and claim fictitious rights in the Land of Israel just to fight the Zionist movement.” Not content with casually tossing a match into only one fuel-soaked security arena, Smotrich made sure to do all of this in his official capacity as an Israeli minister while standing at a podium with a delusionally putative map of Israel that included not only the West Bank, but the East Bank—known to most people as the country of Jordan—as well, which was met in Jordan with exactly the reception one would expect. Those on the right who claim that “Jordan is Palestine” in arguing for permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank and the death of any future two-state outcome may want to call Smotrich’s office to check on whether they need to update their talking points.

As the Knesset voted to repeal Israel’s disengagement from the northern West Bank, the IDF was already busy ramping up its presence in the northern West Bank to deal with the ongoing security nightmare there that is a result of the inevitable violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians operating in close proximity. On Sunday, there was another terrorist attack on Israelis driving through Huwara, one that thankfully did not lead to more Israeli fatalities but that did lead to Israelis attacking Palestinians on the same road, necessitating the IDF sealing off both ends of the town. IDF troops were already posted in Huwara in large numbers, with the deployment there massively increased since the Palestinian and Israeli terrorist attacks three weeks ago, and there are also extra deployments throughout the northern West Bank, both to protect settlers from rising Palestinian violence and to prevent the rising violence carried out by settlers.

A house in Huwara damaged by the February 2023 settler rampage by Liemburg Jude, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

It is against this backdrop that the Israeli government voted to let Israelis return to Homesh, Kadim, Sa-Nur, and Ganim, sitting in the area between Jenin and Nablus in the hottest of West Bank hotspots. Israeli illegal outposts are already clustered around Nablus, and the one spot on the map that jumps out immediately as being outpost-free is now certainly going to be the focus of wildcat construction. This will bring with it IDF soldiers sent to protect these new outposts from attacks and push back Palestinians living in the area, outrage from the Palestinians whose land will be encroached upon and who will soon be facing off with the same masked settlers who committed hundreds of attacks on Palestinians last year, and even more IDF soldiers sent to try to deal with the latest rounds of hostilities. The same dynamic that is now a feature of everyday life in Huwara will be replicated in tens of new places around the northern West Bank.

The four evacuated settlements on a map of the PA’s Jenin governorate in the West Bank, based on a modified 2018 map from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

It is impossible to observe the current security situation in the northern West Bank and credibly claim that settlements are needed for security or that they improve security. They are an enormous drain on IDF resources, preparedness, and capabilities rather than the other way around, and the fact that some of those who celebrated the repeal of the disengagement law for Samaria immediately called to replicate it in Gaza as well demonstrates just how radical this movement is and how disconnected it is from security considerations. There are justifications for settlements on ideological grounds, but making those arguments does not play into Israel’s public relations strategy of locating its settlement policies in Israel’s quest for security. Yet as Israel plows ahead with tossing rational security considerations aside in favor of an overtly ideological agenda that does not even consider the security implications that arise as a result, fewer are going to be amenable to the security arguments that Israeli governments have made for decades.

The water tower of the evacuated Homesh settlement by Pinilev, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

As Israeli security officials make promises in multilateral summits abroad while Israeli politicians undermine those promises at every turn, it is Israeli security and Israeli credibility that suffer. For someone whose favorite nickname used to be Mr. Security, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is acting as someone who has forgotten what it means to have a secure state, even as he continues to insist that nobody should worry because he has his hands firmly on the wheel.

Michael Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Chief Policy Officer, based in Washington, D.C. To contact Michael, please email him at mkoplow@ipforum.org.

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