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PoliticsMiddle East

Ben-Gvir's visit might strain Israeli ties with Arab nations

Jennifer Holleis
January 5, 2023

Controversial visit to Jerusalem's sacred compound by an Israeli minister threatens efforts to improve relations with Arab neighbors and raises concerns about potential conflict.

Israel's Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir on Jerusalem's sacred site.
Itamar Ben-Gvir's walk on the Temple Mount, also called the Nobel Sanctuary, may hamper Israel's attempts at normalizing relations with Arab countriesImage: Minhelet Har-Habait/AFP

There could be wide-reaching consequences for Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors after a visit on Tuesday by new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary.

Some Palestinians described Ben-Gvir's visit as a provocation and a potential precursor to an effort to seize complete control of the compound, which is home to the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam.

The United Nations, the United States, Germany and other countries have expressed concern over Ben-Gvir's visit. Jordan and Egypt, which signed peace agreements with Israel decades ago, as well as the signatories of the 2020-21 normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords — Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — and Saudi Arabia were among the nations that condemned the visit.

Reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday that the "status quo" of the sacred site, which is under Jordan's custodianship, remains unchanged.

The "status quo" refers to rules and mutual respect among religious communities. It means, for example, that Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the place, while Muslims can largely enter and pray there with few restrictions.

In the past, the site has been home to frequent standoffs between Israeli security forces and Muslims headed to Friday prayers, with the most recent occurring in April.

Boys hurl rocks at Israeli security forces (outside of frame) inside mosque complex
In 2022, Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli security forces at the compoundImage: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Israel seeks to prioritize foreign relations

Ben-Gvir's visit to the compound happened as Netanyahu seeks improved relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other regional leaders. 

"Any move towards formal annexation or undermining the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, could challenge Israel's ability to maintain the Abraham Accords and bring new members — such as Saudi Arabia — onboard," Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW.

Lovatt said Netanyahu would likely prefer to shift the focus away from the holy site and focus on foreign policy goals of "marginalizing the Palestinians on the regional and international stage while consolidating a pro-Israel, anti-Iran Arab front."

This view is echoed by Peter Lintl, an associate at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"Netanyahu would also prefer to distract attention from his coalition of right-wing and radical right-wing parties by calling on the international community to help with another 'peace deal' instead of focusing on the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories," Lintl told DW.

(L-R) Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
Former US President Donald Trump's administration brokered the accords with Netanyahu and the Bahraini and UAE foreign ministersImage: SAUL LOEB/AFP

"The new Israeli government has a central interest in extending the normalization agreements to Saudi Arabia in particular," Lintl said. 

A normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia would represent a significant step against Iran, a rival of both the Saudis and Israelis.

Walking a tightrope

The Saudi condemnation of Ben-Gvir's visit to the sacred site could present an obstacle to strengthening bilateral relations, but will not necessarily lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to freeze relations completely.

"Saudi Arabia sees the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as positive, in particular when it comes to containing Iran," Sebastian Sons, a researcher with the Bonn-based think tank Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), told DW. "On the other hand, they do fear at the same time that an escalation with Iran will be pushed forward, and they also worry that the Palestinian cause will be further undermined." 

In particular, Saudi King Salman, the father of the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, has repeatedly declared that Saudi Arabia will continue to support the Palestinian cause, meaning a two-state solution.

However, a two-state solution does not currently appear to be on the immediate horizon, and normalization of Israeli-Saudi ties could also take considerable time.

"[Saudi Arabia] is committed to the Palestinian cause and, accordingly, a further weakening of the Palestinians is a problem for reasons of publicity, but also for real political considerations," Sons said. "I think normalization with Israel is unlikely before King Salman's passing, regardless of who rules Israel, and normalization does not automatically occur under MBS either," Sons said.

The new Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen
New Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen hopes to expand the Abraham AccordsImage: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

For his part, new Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who aims to expand the Accords, has highlighted the economic advantages of bilateral relations with Arab neighbors.

"Israel's ties with current partners yielded $2.85 billion (€2.7 billion) in 2022 trade and a significant contribution to security (and) regional stability," he said in a statement. Also, Cohen shared his plan to attend a Moroccan-led summit in March to further relations with Arab countries.

Netanyahu sounded a similar note on Wednesday. "We are determined to deepen Israel's peaceful relations with six Arab states and add to them historic new agreements with more Arab countries," he told reporters.

Edited by: Sean Sinico

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
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