‘A big test’: Iran and Turkey lurk behind Israel crisis as power players benefit

The Washington Examiner:

An eruption of violence in Jerusalem presents President Joe Biden’s young presidency a crisis that may be welcomed by multiple regional power players, analysts and U.S. government observers fear.

“We’re in a new place, a place we haven’t seen in a number of years, where this level of escalation has occurred,” a Senate Republican aide said amid reports of multiple waves of rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups and retaliatory airstrikes from Israel. “It’s definitely a big test for the administration.”

The deadly clashes began when Israel evicted a handful of Palestinian families then destroyed their homes; after tensions rose, Israeli security forces acted aggressively inside a revered mosque, prompting violence from the other side. Chaos then ensued, with deaths on both sides and no peace process in sight.

The crisis is unfolding as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders confront parallel internal power struggles that could enhance the political value of the conflict for both sides. Netanyahu’s rivals are racing to form a government, with the help of Arab Israeli lawmakers, that would oust the longtime Israeli prime minister, just days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled parliamentary elections in a move widely perceived as a bid to short-circuit the expected success of his rivals in Hamas.

There’s obviously a domestic Netanyahu play here, that Netanyahu wants to be the strong guy, wants to be the strong leader, and I worry that that could cause things to spiral more, not less, because of his own political situation,” the Senate GOP aide said. “But, look, I think the Palestinians are similarly frustrated. Abbas called off elections. So there’s a lot of tensions, political tensions.”

Hamas foreshadowed the clash when Abbas blamed Israel for the canceled elections, vowing that Israel would “pay the price.” Those political dynamics have been aggravated by clashes on Temple Mount, just as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is drawing to a close — a religious setting that foregrounds the transnational aspects of disputes in east Jerusalem.

There’s a sense in which the conflict is favorable to Netanyahu’s political interests. The leaders of two major Israeli opposition parties huddled Sunday with Islamist Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas in a bid to broker a power-sharing deal that would secure them a governing majority that would drive Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office — but Abbas canceled a meeting that they had scheduled for Monday.

“Until the violence stops, the negotiations would not resume, even if it would take weeks, Ra’am officials said,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

Those immediate political issues could be exacerbated through the influence of outside actors such as Iran, which has long supported Palestinian terrorist groups, in addition to one of the region’s most influential, and wayward, U.S. allies: Turkey. While the recently signed Abraham Accords have reflected improving ties between Israel and key Gulf Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian controversy remains unresolved, and both Turkey and Iran cited the dispute in their condemnations of the Abraham Accords last year.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Israel as a “cruel terrorist state” on Saturday, and he said last year that “Jerusalem is our city” as part of his effort to identify his government with the late Ottoman Empire.

“At a time when his popularity has taken a hard hit domestically from Turkey’s ongoing descent into authoritarianism and economic crisis, Erdogan feels a growing need to enter into polemics with his Israeli counterparts,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior analyst Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish opposition lawmaker, told the Washington Examiner. “Such diplomatic spats not only divert the Turkish public’s attention away from the political, economic, and public health crises at home but also revamp Erdogan’s waning popularity in Muslim-majority countries.”

Iran may have a more immediate role in the crisis.

“Iran’s IRGC head Hossein Salami warned last week that Israel was vulnerable to one large tactical operation because the country is so small,” Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis Executive Director Seth Frantzman wrote Tuesday in the Jerusalem Post. “Hamas is setting the pace – and that pace may be one that is being watched or even guided from Iran. This may be due to the fact that Hezbollah wants to know what it looks like when Israel is faced with a large amount of rocket fire.”

The centrality of Hamas in the dispute could put the spotlight on Qatar, which hosts a major U.S. military base but has maintained warm relations with both Turkey and Iran, much to the annoyance of its other Gulf Arab brethren. Qatari officials have long cultivated influence among Hamas leaders, one of whom lives in Qatar — and reportedly spoke with Erdogan this week.

“Our decision and the decision of the Palestinian people is to defend al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh reportedly said. “This is not the battle of the Jerusalem residents alone, but the battle of all of Palestine and all Muslims.”

State Department officials have discouraged violence by both Israel and the terrorists, but that lobbying campaign may need to extend to Doha.

“[The Qataris have] had that long-established role in Gaza, so that’s where we’ve always seen the traditional leverage, but Turkey is a real interesting angle here,” the Senate Republican aide said. “It’s not just as simple as Israel and the Palestinians. … There’s a lot of dynamics here.”

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