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Source: USA Today

Jan 30, 2023

By Jotam Confino and Kim Hjelmgaard

TEL AVIV – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel and the West Bank on Monday and Tuesday, about a month into Israel's new ultra-right-wing, religiously conservative government led by returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The top U.S. diplomat's trip coincides with a flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But it was long planned, and follows a visit to Egypt. Blinken is in the region to take stock ofthreats new and old — new threats to checks and balances on Israel's democracy, often described as "the only democracy in the Middle East," and familiar threats from Iran.

Israel-Palestinian violence: What happened? Why this new uptick?

Israel routinely raids Palestinian areas to arrest suspected militants and round up weapons. Nine Palestinians were killed on Thursday when Israel's army raided a refugee camp in Jenin, in the West Bank. Seven of those killed were militants, three of whom belonged to the Islamic Jihad group. One of the civilians who died was a 61-year-old woman. The death toll was one of the highest for a single raid in years. 

The next day, a Palestinian militant killed seven Israelis outside a synagogue in an Israeli settlement neighborhood of Jerusalem. That too was one of the deadliest single Palestinian attacks against Israelis for some time. On Saturday, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot and wounded two Israelis. 

Netanyahu has vowed a "strong, fast and accurate" response to the killings of Israelis. He said he will, for example, speed up access to gun licenses for civilians. 

Sami Hijjawi, mayor of Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, blames the escalating violence on the Israeli army and its military operations in cities like Jenin and Nablus. "There is no hope among the youth so they don’t fear anything. They are ready to resist and take up arms," he said. 

What's behind the recent protests in Israel against Netanyahu?

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets four weeks in a row to demonstrate against the Netanyahu government’s plans to reform Israel's judicial system. The reforms will significantly weaken the powers held by Israel's Supreme Court, making it impossible for the court to strike down laws passed in parliament. The government also wants to be in control of appointing Supreme Court judges.

The planned reforms have been widely criticized in Israel: by the Supreme Court itself, by civil rights groups, by leaders in Israel's much regarded technology industry. There are concerns Israel could slide into an illiberal democracy, and toward authoritarianism. Top economists have warned it will hurt Israel’s economy. Critics says the reforms are aimed at allowing the government to pass a law that will prevent a sitting prime minister from being indicted. Netanyahu is on trial in three different corruption cases.

"Israel's democracy is under attack from within by a government that is trying to make it into a Hungary-like regime," said Roee Neuman, one of the organizers of the weekly protests, referring to that country's prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has gutted Hungary's democratic institutions. "This is a real threat for the Israeli economy, to women, the LGBTQ community and every minority that won’t have any defense from the state. We’ll continue to protest and use any tool in our arsenal to save the Israeli democracy,” said Neuman, who works in communications. 

Attempts to revive a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers had stalled even before Tehran last year started a violent crackdown on human rights demonstrations, initially sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police. Netanyahu bitterly opposes the accord, known as the JCPOA. During his previous two stints as prime minister, he intensified Israel's military attacks inside Iran as part of a vow not to let Iran reach a stage where it can make a nuclear weapon. 

Over the weekend, Israel carried out a drone attack inside Iran that struck a defense facility in Isfahan, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing U.S. officials, in what appears to be the first such strike Netanyahu has authorized since returning to power.

Israel has not commented on the attack and Iranian state media claimed the facility sustained only "minor damage." It is unclear whether the facility that was hit is involved in making drones supplied to Russia used in its campaign against Ukraine, though a senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy linked the incident directly to the war there. "Explosive night in Iran," Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted Sunday. "Did warn you."

Netanyahu's stance on the JCPOA played well with the Trump administration, which pulled the U.S. out of the agreement. But it strained relations with the Obama administration which devised the nuclear agreement and threatens to do that again under Biden's.

Still, Yaakov Peri, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, said in a private WhatsApp message that he didn't think there would be "any disagreements" between the U.S. and Israel over Iran. 

"About the political situation in Israel, Blinken will be worried, and as always (Netanyahu) will not say the truth and will try to calm him, and say that he will not allow Israel’s democracy to be damaged. I hope that Blinken will not believe him."

Hjelmgaard reported from London

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