Israel this week raised the pace and intensity of its messages to Iran, the United States and the international community ahead of the renewal of the nuclear talks in Vienna next week. In the light of Iran’s objections, the United States will not be directly represented in the talks, whose participants will be China, Russia, Britain, Germany and France. But the U.S. Special Representative to Iran, Robert Malley, will be in Vienna to follow the talks. Israel, which is not a party to the agreement, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett noted this week, is not invited.
In a speech at a conference of the Policy and Strategy Institute of Reichman University in Herzliya, Bennet added that “disagreements could occur” between friends and warned that the Iranian nuclear project is at a “very advanced stage.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for his part, preferred to thank “our American friends” for the sanctions they have already imposed on Iran, and warned about an improvement in the fleet of drones that Iran is developing. And Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman presented a pessimistic forecast: “The most conservative assessment is that with a new nuclear agreement, Iran will be nuclear within five years.” All the Israeli speakers expressed concern about the developments and emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense.
But despite the declarations, the possibility that this right will be translated into an Israeli airstrike on nuclear facilities does not look high. The rationale Bennett is offering for this of late is the situation left him by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in practice, according to Bennett, neglected to preserve the military option. But the main reason for this assessment is related to concern about damaging the relations with the United States. Netanyahu, too, who was on the verge of an attack at least twice at the start of the last decade, hesitated and finally refrained from an attack that was not coordinated with the Americans. A key reason was his fear of causing a rift with the United States, which was at odds with his militant public rhetoric.
The Biden administration is not cultivating many illusions ahead of the negotiations. The assumption in Washington, as in European capitals and in Jerusalem, is that Iran will present a tough line when the talks begin and that there is every likelihood that the first round will disperse without any agreement. Part of Israel’s concern stems from the possibility that Washington’s fallback position will be to promote an interim agreement: Iran will cease to enrich uranium in return for the lifting of some of the sanctions, without trying to restore the project to its situation on the eve of the Iranian violations (which were renewed more than two years ago, it should be recalled, in response to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement).
Israelis who took part in the regional security conferences which convened lately, in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, noted a change in their hosts’ tone. In similar events during the Trump era there was a palpable militant spirit against the Iranians. This year things were more moderate and conciliatory. Our friends in the Persian Gulf are also aware that the times are changing. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was sent to the Bahrain meeting in order to bolster the American commitment to defend its allies in the region against Iran, but it’s unlikely he persuaded anyone there.
The concerns are also related, then, to the Iranians’ increasing use of drones, a development which is seen in Israel as part of the nuclear project campaign. By means of these attacks, Iran is threatening and exerting pressure in different locales in the region. The best known of these attacks occurred more than two years ago and crippled a central oil site in Saudi Arabia, but recently, too, there have been attacks in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, most of them through local militias that are supported by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards. The numerous airborne patrols in Israel’s skies, as well as the deployment this month of the Sky Dew detection system in the Galilee, shows that Israel, too, is concerned about a similar risk (though it’s difficult to believe that Iran would take this route on the eve of the talks’ resumption). According to foreign media, Israel is in the meantime continuing with stepped-up airstrikes in Syria, at a rate that has risen to up to two a week.
In the territories, Hamas continues to play its double game: preserving the quiet in the Gaza Strip, while increasingly encouraging “individual attacks” in areas that are not under the organization’s control, in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This week the Shin Bet security service issued a lengthy statement about breaking up a large Hamas terror cell in the West Bank, which was uncovered about two months ago. The more than 50 members who were arrested are suspected of planning to execute shooting and kidnapping attacks, together with suicide attacks in Jerusalem. Hamas is playing a dangerous game: despite the clear desire of the sides for the continuation of the quiet in the Gaza Strip, excessive success of the terrorist attacks could also generate renewed escalation in Gaza.
As usual, it’s difficult to grasp the whole picture from the information that the Israeli side publishes. A report on the Al Jazeera website this week shows what is going on behind the scenes, in order to ensure that the senior Hamas figures remain calm. Billboards with photographs of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi have gone up in central locations in the Gaza Strip, as a token of gratitude for his support. The background: the arrival of a delegation of 70 Egyptian engineers and workers with two missions: launching a project to build a new coastal highway, and the construction of two new neighborhoods, in the north and center of the Gaza Strip. The funding – hundreds of millions of dollars – will come from Qatar and the UAE. Concurrently, Egypt is upgrading the Rafah crossing point and sending considerable merchandise through it, from which the Egyptian army usually reaps large profits.
In other words, Egypt, with Bennett’s agreement, is bypassing two obstacles that Israel created for itself: limiting the scale of the rehabilitation in Gaza until the problem of the captives and MIAs there is solved, and continued tight supervision of the goods that enter the Gaza Strip. These bypasses are being implemented by Egypt, with Gulf funding, and official Israel can pretend that it’s not involved. The generous financing, together with the positive report on Al Jazeera, which is subordinate to the Qatari authorities, attest to an improvement in Sissi’s relations with that country, which in the past marked him as an enemy because of its close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, it’s possible that the most important piece of information published this week in the Palestinian context comes from a poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, headed by Ghassan Khatib. The survey shows a significant increase in the proportion of Palestinians who support a one-state solution over a two-state solution. Thus, 26 percent of those asked support one state, 29.4 percent favor two states. In the previous survey, conducted in April, 39.3 percent backed two states and 21.4 percent favored one state. In the West Bank there are now more supporters of one state than supporters of the previous solution. That is a dramatic turnaround, and a trend that is anticipated to only grow more acute.
Since the government announced its war on crime in Israel’s Arab communities, not a week has gone by without the publication in the media a few photos of large-scale weapons seizures in Arab towns. The police in particular appear determined to show the political decision-makers that they are capable of improving their response to the rampant crime. There are also signs of a mild decline in the murder rate in Arab communities, possibly due to police pressure on organized crime. Some crime bosses have fled to Turkey or to Persian Gulf states, out of fear of the police, of the murderous intentions of their rivals or of both.
The multiple murders, along with the broad, and rare, media and public attention they received, have given rise to a near consensus in Arab public opinion in Israel: Crime is the most urgent problem, the state needs to address it with all the means at its disposal. Arab citizens will not protest even if it means a frequent, and tough, police presence on their streets.
But more-acute fundamental contributing factors have not disappeared. A poll published this week by the Zulat Institute for Equality and Human Rights reveals a significant disparity between the positions of the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens on the question of equality in Israel. Thus, 68 percent of the Arabs who responded said that they do not agree with the statement that the government gives Arab citizens equal rights, compared to 34 percent of Jewish respondents (49 percent of the Jews and 11 percent of the Arabs maintained that equality exists). Disparities appeared also in questions dealing with crime among the Arab population, but they were less extreme: 65 percent of all respondents, and 71 percent of the Arabs, awarded a grade of poor or very poor to the police for their handling of crime in Israel’s Arab communities.
Bennett has cause for mildly optimism over one shift that emerged: 54 percent of respondents gave his government a failing grade for its handling of the problem, compared to 59 percent for the Netanyahu government. (Among Arab respondents the decline in the disapproval rating was more dramatic, to 61 percent from 71 percent.)
Zulat’s executive director, Einat Ovadia, told Haaretz: “Instead of creating greater equality, the present government, too, is using discriminatory means, such as bringing in the Shin Bet security service to eradicate crime, and resorting to administrative detention [arrest without trial] and searches without a warrant.” She called on the government “to promote an extensive, systemic campaign to advance equality so that the entire public will feel that the new government is attentive to it.”