JERUSALEM — On Monday last week, a pivotal political meeting was about to take place. The two architects of a new Israeli government that was to finally remove Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office — Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s main opposition party, centrist Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett, leader of right-wing Yamina — were to sit down with Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamic-conservative Ra’am Party, and thrash out a coalition agreement. But as tensions flared in and around al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the meeting was postponed until “matters calm down.”
Hours later, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza, starting yet another round of deadly exchange of rockets and airstrikes with Israel, and then mobs of Arab Israelis attacked Jewish homes and synagogues in the town of Lod, sparking off an unprecedented cycle of internecine violence between Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel. Three days later, Bennett informed Lapid that under present circumstances, he doesn’t believe that a government with Arab and left-wing parties is possible. He disbanded the new government before it was even formed and resumed talks on a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
Since then, conspiracy theorists, and some more levelheaded Israeli pundits and politicians, have been saying that Netanyahu engineered these crises to scupper the coalition talks to replace him.
There is no real evidence of this: On Monday, he belatedly gave orders to police in Jerusalem to reduce their profile and prevent a march of Jewish nationalists through Palestinian areas. In Gaza as well, it’s hard to prove Netanyahu ratcheted up the situation for political gain. Gaza has been under joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Hamas coup there in 2007, and the periodic rounds of warfare were taking place before Netanyahu came back to power in 2009. And enmity between Jewish and Arab neighbors in what was once Palestine has existed since at least the late 19th century.
But Netanyahu has without a doubt created the environment in which any form of reconciliation is now impossible. And on a political level, this has served him remarkably well.
Hamas may be implacably opposed to Israel’s very existence, at least in its foundational charter, but in Gaza, the organization helps Netanyahu weaken Palestinian leadership, which nominally at least still resides in Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Netanyahu in the past 12 years has blocked any plan to alleviate the situation in Gaza while supporting the transfer of Qatari money to the Hamas government there, buying short periods of calm from the festering coastal strip where nearly 2 million Palestinians remain isolated.
Exacerbating generations-old hatreds between Jews and Arabs for political gain and keeping his hardcore base together have been the hallmarks of Netanyahu’s time in power, from the “Netanyahu, it’s good for the Jews” campaign that helped him win his first election back in 1996, through his infamous “the Arabs are coming out in droves” get-out-the-vote video from election day in 2015 to the way he branded Arab Israeli lawmakers as “supporters of terrorism” after the elections last year to make it harder for a coalition with their support to replace him.
What has been less noticed outside Israel is how Netanyahu’s politicizing and degrading of Israel’s national police force has also contributed to the current crisis. From 1997, during his first term as prime minister, and onward, Netanyahu has been the subject of multiple corruption investigations, three of which are now the basis of the trial in the Jerusalem District Court in which he is charged with bribery and fraud.
Israel’s police have a wide range of duties, and Netanyahu has tried to influence what authorities focus on: less investigation of white-collar fraud, more paramilitary work. In 2015, he endorsed Ronny Alsheikh, a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service, as the new national police commissioner. Netanyahu hoped that the spy chief would focus on counterterrorism, not on corruption-busting. He was to be rudely surprised as Alsheikh ended up spearheading the investigations against him.
Since Alsheikh’s departure (despite custom, his three-year term was not extended) in 2018, Netanyahu, through his proxy the public-security minister, kept the post of national commissioner unoccupied for two years. A few months ago, a new commissioner was appointed — the former commander of the paramilitary Border Police.
The degradation of Israel’s police as a public service and its increasing militarization is now a feature, not a bug. And that’s been evident in the heavy-handed over-policing in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and near al-Aqsa Mosque, where clashes between police and Palestinian protesters sparked the latest round of hostilities and gave Hamas its excuse to launch rockets from Gaza.
The over-policing of Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the way police neglected Israel’s Arab neighborhoods and towns in recent years, allowing many of them to descend into gang warfare as unsolved murder rates rocketed. One Arab resident of Lod asked me this week, “How do you expect us to calm down when the police come here only when the victims are Jews? When an Arab murders an Arab, they come the next day, arrest a member of each family and then release them for lack of evidence. That’s all.”
But even when Jewish streets and synagogues in Lod were under attack last week, the police were slow in arriving. That led groups of Jewish vigilantes, drawn from groups aligned with the Jewish Power party, to gather in Lod to protect Jewish residents.
Jewish Power is an offshoot of the Jewish supremacist Kach Party, proscribed as a terror organization, which was led in the 1980s by American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had founded the Jewish Defense League before immigrating to Israel. Netanyahu’s predecessors as Likud leaders shunned Kahane, refusing even to remain in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) plenum when he spoke during his single term as a lawmaker. But Netanyahu, anxious for Kahanist voters as part of his coalition, urged the party to merge with other far-right parties in the Religious Zionism list and has brought them into the right-wing mainstream.
As a result, Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is now a Knesset member, with parliamentary immunity that allows him to patrol Arab neighborhoods with police security, inflaming tensions. And his minions have become emboldened. This wasn’t Netanyahu’s original aim in helping Ben-Gvir win a Knesset seat: He did so out of electoral calculations. But his cynical willingness to court the racist far-right has been another major factor contributing to the current wave of violence within Israel.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric and political maneuvers have done much to reduce Israeli society to its raw basic elements, which creates difficult dilemmas for those who do not want to be sucked in by that binary. “I hate everything [the vigilantes] represent, but they saved our homes when the police didn’t turn up,” one Jewish resident of Lod told me last week.
Netanyahu didn’t invent the Israel-Gaza conflict. That began long before he was born, and he inherited the Gaza blockade from his predecessor. But as Israel’s leader, now for a total of 15 years, he has purposely squandered years of relative calm and prosperity, Israel’s best opportunities for making progress toward to a solution, for his self-serving politics. Whenever his long time in office will come to an end, his legacy will remain the deep entrenchment of the siege mentality and us-against-them mind-set of Israel’s Jews (this was literally Likud’s campaign slogan in the 2020 election) and the inflammation of sectarian hatreds. That may help Netanyahu in the short term, but it’ll only lead to more suffering for everyone here in the long run.
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Moments before the blast, she ushered her children inside. She wasn’t so lucky herself.