Amid spasm of violence, Israel’s far-right government raises risk of escalation
Israel’s new far-right government has only been in power for a month, but under its watch, Israelis and Palestinians have already experienced one of the most violent phases in their region, outside of a large-scale war. scale, for years.
Nine Palestinians were shot dead Thursday morning in the deadliest Israeli raid in the West Bank in at least half a decade. Then an armed Palestinian killed seven people on Friday night outside a synagogue in Jerusalem, the deadliest attack on civilians in the city since 2008. And on Saturday an assailant who police say was 13 shot and wounded two Israelis near a settlement. in East Jerusalem.
These events were not unique to the mandate of this government. But analysts fear that the policies and leaders of Israel’s new administration – the most right-wing in Israel’s history – could escalate the situation further.
The new government is an alliance of settler activists, hardline nationalists and ultra-conservatives led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and its leaders seek to annex the West Bank, further loosen the rules of engagement for the Israeli military and strengthen Israeli control over a holy site in Jerusalem. All of this has already caused Palestinian anger to rise and made it more difficult for the remaining moderate forces in the Israeli government to defuse tensions.
Under the previous government, “Israeli policy was designed to maintain the illusion of stability,” said Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli official and analyst at the Israel Policy Forum.
Now, Mr. Novik added, “That cover has been taken down.”
In recent interviews, Netanyahu has frequently called such arguments alarmist and said his Likud party would take charge of maintaining stability.
In a televised address Saturday night to his cabinet, Netanyahu also called for a measured response and warned against vigilantism.
“We will act calmly and decisively,” Netanyahu said. “We are not looking for escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario.”
Military strategy is “deciding on policies that could be quite inflammatory,” he said in a podcast interview last month. “I try to avoid that,” he added.
Admittedly, the government also inherited an unstable dynamic from previous administrations.
The Jerusalem shooting drew comparisons to a wave of five Palestinian attacks that killed 19 Israelis and foreigners last spring during the tenure of the previous Israeli government.
The raid in the West Bank was just the continuation of a 10-month Israeli military campaign in the territory that the previous government had launched in response to this wave of violence last spring, and which has resulted in the deaths of more than 170 Palestinians. in 2022, the highest annual toll in the West Bank for more than a decade and a half. Thirty Israelis and foreigners were killed last year by Palestinians, the highest toll since 2014.
The long-term roots of this cycle – including Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and the establishment of a two-tier legal system there for Israeli settlers and Palestinians; the failure of peace negotiations, which stalled in 2014; and Palestinian rejection of Israel and violence against Israelis – also long before any contemporary Israeli government.
What you need to know about the new Israeli government
Nonetheless, extremists in the current government were elected on promises that have already fueled Palestinian anger. And they were emboldened, not intimidated, by the rising tensions.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new police minister, won a record number of seats in November’s general election after campaigning to take stronger action against Palestinians whom he sees as a terrorist threat and playing on the fears exacerbated by inter-ethnic riots between Arabs and Jews in 2021.
Friday’s Jerusalem attack has already intensified calls from its supporters to keep its promises.
“Itamar, take care of them, Itamar!” shouted a passerby, after the arrival of Mr. Ben-Gvir at the scene of the attack. “We elected you, Itamar.”
“The government must react,” replied Mr. Ben-Gvir. “With God’s help, I hope that’s what happens.”
Mr. Ben-Gvir did not give details, but his past has made Palestinians particularly worried about his next steps. In the 1990s, he was banned from serving in the Israeli army because security officials deemed him too extremist. Until 2020, he displayed a large portrait in his home of a Jewish gunman who killed 29 Palestinians at a West Bank mosque in 1994.
“There is a major shift here,” said Hani Masri, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “We used to see that on the sidelines, not among ministers.”
“We are in a new stage,” he added.
Israel’s new government has already sparked greater attention on whether the two-state solution – the term for a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel – is not just unlikely, but impossible. . The declaration of the government’s guiding principles began with a direct affirmation of the exclusive right of the Jewish people to both Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Another coalition deal promised to formally annex the West Bank when Netanyahu chooses and to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements in the territory.
For now, Mr. Netanyahu has prevented some of his most radical ministers from fully exercising their will in the West Bank.
This month, he ignored demands by Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right minister, to stop the army from evicting an unauthorized Israeli settlement from the territory. But it’s unclear how long he can continue to deny his coalition partner: He has promised to give Mr. Smotrich power over the military department that oversees construction and demolition in parts of the territory administered by Israel.
Through public and private interventions, the United States has also tried to avoid the more drastic goals of some ministers in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank on Monday and Tuesday as part of a long-planned visit.
But analysts doubt much can be achieved, given the strong emotions in Israel and the West Bank following last week’s events.
The visit is “more likely to feel like an extended condolence call than a productive diplomatic mission,” said Aaron D. Miller, a former US diplomat and fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based research group.
“Blood is rising on both sides,” he added.
Internal divisions within Palestinian society and its leadership will also hamper efforts to redress the situation. The Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous body that has administered most Palestinian towns in the West Bank since the 1990s, is deeply unpopular among ordinary Palestinians, many of whom accuse it of collaborating with Israel to coordinate with security forces Israelis.
Since the authority’s establishment, its police and intelligence operatives have cooperated with their Israeli counterparts, sharing intelligence that officials say has helped thwart attacks, retreating to their barracks during Israeli raids and sometimes arresting Palestinian gunmen considered a threat by Israel.
For supporters, the coordination is a confidence-building mechanism that helps stabilize relations with Israel and paves the way for a Palestinian state. For critics, including militant groups like Hamas, it is an act of betrayal and acquiescence to Israel that brings little benefit to the Palestinians, let alone sovereignty.
After Thursday’s raid, the authority announced the suspension of security coordination. If fully established, the move would cut off most contact between Israeli and Palestinian security services, making it easier for Palestinian armed groups and violent Israeli settlers to operate unimpeded.
Growing frustration and violence among young Palestinians is also contributing to an explosive situation. The number of deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis has increased over the past year. The same was true for the level of Palestinian resistance to Israeli military raids, which in turn provoked more deadly shootings between Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli army in the heart of Palestinian cities.
All of this increases the likelihood of a conflagration and diminishes the appeal of cooperation with Israel among the Palestinian leadership and security apparatus.
Analysts and diplomats briefed on the suspension decision believe that at least some level of cooperation with Israel will continue in secret and could be quickly restored in full, just as in 2017 and 2020.
But the current context may make it more difficult than in the past for the authority to reverse its position, said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Palestinian policy research group.
Tensions with the Israeli government – whose members have openly called for the collapse of authority – are unlikely to ease quickly enough to allow authority to back down without losing face, Dalalsha said.
“There are no limits to what this government can go,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Hiba Yazbek contributed report.