Rise in violence is testing Israel’s fragile government

BNEI BRAK, Israel — A recent spate of terrorist attacks in Israel, the deadliest in seven years, has presented a major challenge to Israel’s fragile coalition government, which has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum for policies critics say have failed increases the risk of violence.

On the right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been criticized for including an Arab party in the coalition, a decision that right-wing critics say has dampened the state’s willingness to police Israel’s Arab minority and limited its ability to to respond to recent attacks, two of which were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel.

On the left, Mr Bennett has been criticized for making small concessions to the Palestinians while ruling out peace talks or moves to form a Palestinian state – an approach left-wing critics say has fueled Palestinian desperation and encouraged a minority to do so react with violence.

Mr Bennett is also limited in his ability to respond to the violence by the makeup of his ideologically diverse coalition, an eight-party coalition that includes the right, like Mr Bennett, centrists, leftists and a small Arab Islamist party, Raam , includes – the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli government. Ten months into their tenure, the alliance has consistently found ways to sidestep their differences, but violence has accentuated gaps in their worldviews.

The attacks, which killed 11 people in 10 days, have also served as a reminder that no matter how much the Israelis want the problem to go away so they can go about their lives in peace, polls show the Palestinian issue remains unresolved remains and a potential powder keg.

Mr Bennett, like his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, has procrastinated on the issue, treating the conflict as a problem that needs to be contained rather than solved.

The last peace negotiations ended in 2014. The Palestinian leadership, divided between Gaza and the West Bank, has failed to forge a unified negotiating position, while key Israeli leaders, including Mr Bennett, have been outspoken in their opposition to a Palestinian state.

But the rise in violence has prompted some Israeli commentators to acknowledge the inherent instability of the status quo, even if that recognition has only hardened people’s pre-existing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s a tired conversation in many ways with few new arguments,” said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. “You don’t see people changing position based on events,” he added. “They choose their position, where they sit.”

For some witnesses and survivors of the recent shooting in Bnei Brak, a city in central Israel, the attack by a Palestinian in the West Bank that killed five people there on Tuesday has calcified the perception that Israel has no partner for peace among Palestinians and that the creation of a Palestinian state would only make Israeli life more dangerous.

Although Mr Bennett is also opposed to Palestinian sovereignty, he has been heavily criticized for his partnership with Raam and for granting tens of thousands more work permits to Israel to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Posters have appeared across the city urging residents not to hire Palestinian workers, and a poster posted next to a memorial to the victims calls on Mr Bennett to step down. In nearby towns, one mayor closed municipal construction sites that often employed Palestinian workers, and another urged contractors not to hire Palestinians.

“We need tough punishment for the terrorists’ families,” said Moshe Waldman, an accountant in Bnei Brak who witnessed part of the attack. “Destroy their houses. Let’s take real deterrent action.”

“The world is always telling us, ‘You have to sit down and negotiate,'” he added. “But that’s not the reality here. We are killed because they hate us.”

But if some criticize Mr. Bennett for working too closely with Arab Israelis and making too many concessions to the Palestinians, others accuse him of not making enough.

In addition to work permits, the Israeli government has granted legal status to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank who previously lived in legal limbo; loaned $156 million to the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank; allowed families in Gaza to visit relatives in Israeli prisons; and met and communicated more openly with Palestinian leaders than the previous government.

But critics argue that this approach, which Mr Bennett has termed “conflict shrinkage,” does little to improve fundamental aspects of Palestinian life under occupation.

The Israeli army still conducts daily raids in areas nominally administered by the Palestinian Authority. Israel still operates a two-tier justice system in the West Bank – one for Palestinians and one for Israeli settlers. And the Palestinian dream of statehood remains as elusive as ever.

“There is complete desperation and a lack of political vision on the Palestinian front,” said Mairav ​​Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization.

“Israelis have become accustomed to perpetuating the status quo without price,” added Ms. Zonszein. “But without a political process, the climate is more violent.”

In the short term, Mr. Bennett faces the difficult task of increasing Israeli security and allaying concerns from his right-wing base while avoiding action that could either further escalate violence or alienate the Arab lawmakers on whom his coalition depends.

To strike this balance, the Israeli army has sent reinforcements to the West Bank and the Israel-Gaza border, and the Israeli police have turned their attention almost exclusively to counter-terrorism.

Mr Bennett has also urged Israeli civilians to carry licensed firearms, a move that alarmed many of Israel’s Arab citizens, said Bashaer Fahoum-Jayoussi, co-chair of the board of Abraham Initiatives, a non-governmental group campaigning for Arab equality uses Jews.

“This is crazy,” she said. “This calls for the militarization of citizens” and risks reinforcing with vigilantism the “hate speech that has been poured out against the Arab community in Israel over the past week and a half.”

In an attempt to calm tensions, Mr Bennett has praised his Arab coalition partner, Raam Party leader Mansour Abbas, describing him as a courageous and important member of the government. The government continues to allow tens of thousands of Palestinians into Israel every day from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And there was no change to a plan to allow West Bank pensioners into Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.

Mr. Bennett’s office declined to comment on the article.

But one of his closest allies, Micah Goodman, the philosopher who popularized the idea of ​​”shrinking the conflict,” said it was too early to judge the success of government action in the West Bank or in Israel itself.

The two main pillars of his idea — “gradual liberation of Palestinians in the West Bank and gradual integration of Palestinians into Israel” — will take years, not months, to achieve, he said.

“The dominant emotional experience of Israelis in the conflict is fear, and for Palestinians it is humiliation,” Goodman said. Shrinking the conflict is about “creating a reality where there is less fear for Israelis because there is less terrorism, and less humiliation for Palestinians because there is less occupation.”

This gradual, difficult process “cannot be judged after nine months of this administration,” he added.

If the current wave of violence subsides soon, it could even be taken as proof of the effectiveness of the Bennett administration’s approach, said Mr. Zalzberg, the Jerusalem-based analyst.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a rare condemnation of the attack in Bnei Brak, a move Israeli officials interpreted as a result of their recently increased involvement with him.

Should the current violence subside, “there will be a sense that the PA is a partner and valuable to work with in fighting Israel’s enemies,” Mr. Zalzberg said.

That could “allow more political space for steps that further strengthen the PA,” he added, while “obviously missing full Palestinian statehood.”

But for Ms Fahoum-Jayoussi, these phased measures are not easing the occupation, but instead provide political cover for its entrenchment through the growth of existing settlements and settler violence, which has increased in 2021.

“The occupation is ongoing,” she said. “It’s actually getting worse.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad Contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel, and Gaby Sobelman from Bnei Brak, Israel. Rise in violence is testing Israel’s fragile government

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