For most of Israel’s 75-year history, its closest ally has been the United States, prepared to use its UN security council veto and invariably willing to encourage military collaboration as well as providing plenty of direct aid.
But that relationship is highly stressed at present, mainly down to the Netanyahu government’s determination to curb the power of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, in favour of more power for the Knesset.
As Time magazine put it recently: “The sources of Biden’s grievances are manifold. Since reclaiming power, Netanyahu has formed a hard-right coalition filled with ultraconservative and ultra-Orthodox voices. They have moved quickly to expand Israel’s settlement presence in the West Bank – gobbling up land that Palestinians see as their own and making the conditions near-impossible for an independent state to ever emerge there.”
The White House’s worries go beyond Israel’s current domestic instability, even with the weekly mass public protests against the judicial changes which the US president, Joe Biden, cautioned the Israeli government not to pursue.
They also concern the security of the occupied West Bank, where an increase in violence has been manifest over the past couple of years, mainly down to greater numbers of Jewish settlers with deep religious convictions.
They now number more than half a million across the West Bank, with many seeing it as their God-given land.
Meanwhile, the existing Palestinian population experiences more and more limitations, with security controlled by Israeli forces. Extremists among the settlers persistently harass and disrupt Palestinian life, including attacks on villagers. All too often, Israeli security forces just stand by, even in the face of direct violence.
The Biden administration rarely says much, but there has been a change in its overall attitude, shown by the recent celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary. It was the relatively moderate if largely ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, who was invited to Washington to address the US Congress in July, rather than the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
‘Terror’ on the West Bank
Far more pointed was the use of the term “terrorism” against Israel by the state department in response to the killing of a young Palestinian, 19-year old Qusai Jamal Maatan, near Ramallah by settlers on August 4.
The Israeli agriculture minister, Avi Dichter, tried to dismiss this as a misinformed comment. But the state department confirmed the specific use of the term.
Behind all of this is a major problem for the Israelis in securing the West Bank for the Jewish settlers. With Netanyahu’s government dependent for its very survival on backing from ultra-Orthodox and ideologically nationalist politicians in the Knesset, the settlers have to be afforded all the protection they require.
But the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is deeply reluctant to occupy even small areas of territory because of the determined opposition they would face from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and other paramilitary groups.
Over the past two decades the IDF has learnt the hard way to do everything it can to avoid frontline troops being in close contact with Palestinian populations for any length of time. In a rare event on July 3, the IDF forced entry into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, a tightly packed district with 17,000 people crammed into a few streets and alleyways.
But this involved a brigade-sized force of well over 1,000 elite troops backed up by Shin Bet intelligence agents, Magav border police, armed drones, helicopter gunships, armoured personnel carriers and armoured bulldozers.
The entire operation of combing the camp for explosive device production workshops and other paramilitary sites linked to PIJ was compressed into just 48 hours of intensive activity. In the process, 13 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed and scores of Palestinians were taken into custody.
This raid was most likely prompted by a well-organised PIJ ambush of an Israeli army patrol near Jenin in June, when five armoured personnel carriers were damaged. A subsequent IDF rescue operation required a substantial ground force backed up by AH-64 Apache helicopters using air-to-ground missiles and took nine hours to complete.
Security and settlers
Why is there such a problem? Most analysts had come to the view that Israel had sufficient forces needed to ensure its own security – whether in southern Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank. The reason goes back over two decades with the IDF finding that, first in southern Lebanon and then especially in Gaza, ground troops facing highly motivated and well trained paramilitary opponents fighting on their own home ground took unacceptably high casualties.
The largest IDF operation in Gaza of recent years was the seven-week Operation Protective Edge back in 2014 to suppress rocket fire into Israel and destroy underground facilities. The elite Golani Brigade led the way, but took heavy casualties with 13 killed and 50 injured on the first day alone.
IDF deaths over the seven weeks were 64, with 469 injured. These were tiny compared with over 2,000 Palestinians killed and about 10,000 injured, mostly civilians, but still unacceptably high for the Israelis.
Since then, Israel has opted more for remote war using missiles, bombs and artillery together with anti-rocket technologies, together with selective assassination raids by Special Forces.
The West Bank was relatively easy to control before the expansion in Jewish settlements, albeit appallingly difficult for Palestinians. Many settlers live close to Palestinian towns and villages and are afforded protection by the Israeli government which is controlled by ultra-right parties sympathetic to the settler movement.
Such has been the change in Israeli politics that even if parliamentary control slips away from the likes of Netanyahu, that will not end the problem. The settlers will remain, they are well armed and utterly convinced that they are right.
Netanyahu and the religious right have unleashed a new force and it may be that some in the Biden administration recognise the implications of this and do not like what they see.