Israel’s Netanyahu Faces Escalation With Palestinians Under Contradictory Pressures
The prime minister must balance his internal political needs and the Israeli public's preference for a heavy-handed approach to the Palestinians with the need to secure the support of its international allies
Exactly a month after being sworn in, Israel’s new government is facing a major test as a violent flare-up with the Palestinians threatens to spill over into a wider conflict.
Seven Israelis were killed over the weekend and several others were wounded in two attacks carried out by Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The attacks came after an Israeli military raid in the West Bank last week resulted in the killing of nine Palestinians. After the raid, armed Palestinian organizations vowed revenge. The immediate response was rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. The Israeli military retaliated by carrying out airstrikes in the Strip.
Reacting to the recent escalation in tensions, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would cut security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.
The PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, are under significant internal pressure to stop cooperating with Israel. Abbas, whose hold on the West Bank is waning, is being challenged both internally and by Israel, which would like to see him regain control of rogue elements in the PA.
Israel’s Security Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, met on Saturday to approve a series of measures aimed at quelling the current violence. It is also under pressure to deliver on campaign promises that are still fresh in the memory of many Israelis.
“Our response will be strong, swift, and precise,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting. “Whoever tries to harm us – we will harm them and everyone who assists them.”
The current Netanyahu coalition is the country’s most right-wing government ever. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from the Religious Zionism party are two ultra-nationalists who campaigned for a tougher stance on Palestinians, including Arab citizens of Israel. Ben-Gvir seeks to introduce the death penalty for those convicted of terror attacks against Israelis and cancel the citizenship of the families of such perpetrators. Smotrich wants to annex the West Bank territories while increasing Israeli presence in the areas that Palestinians see as an integral part of their future state.
“Whereas the far right would quite welcome an escalation with the Palestinians as an opportunity to use a heavy hand and push through political actions that they would like, Netanyahu would like to manage the situation and keep it as quiet as possible. That will be a continuous source of tension,” said Professor Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
The cabinet approved the demolition of the home of the assailant who killed the seven Israelis, the revocation of national insurance benefits and rights of families of assailants, legislation to revoke Israeli identity cards from those families, and the expansion of firearm licensing for Israeli civilians. The cabinet also discussed plans to approve further construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu also announced the reinforcement of the police in Jerusalem with military troops.
“I want more police protection,” said Lea Lampner, a resident of Neve Yaakov neighborhood, where the attack that killed seven Israelis took place. “I’m scared to ride the bus, I’m scared of every Arab I see, I’m scared to go out alone. I wish they wouldn’t be hired for work here but I know that is not possible.”
The neighborhood, located in east Jerusalem, is surrounded by Arab neighborhoods. The daily lives of Arabs and Jews in the area are filled with interactions. Accustomed to friction and tension, the attack on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath still came as a shock to many.
Shaul Hai, 68, had just finished his dinner and was heading to the synagogue where he was planning to attend a Bible class. He was fatally shot by the assailant, a 21-year-old Palestinian from east Jerusalem, and died immediately on the scene. His cousin Yaakov Refael was shocked to hear the news of his death in the attack as the Jewish Sabbath ended.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said sadly. “There is always tension in the neighborhood. People always look around with suspicion, but you cannot live in fear; life goes on.”
The complexity of dealing with the escalation while allowing civilians, both Jews and Arabs, to go about their daily lives, now lies in the hands of the Netanyahu government.
Additional legislation against people who support terrorism will be brought forward and expedited.
“It is on our watch and our responsibility. We promised an uncompromising fight against terrorism, and security for the citizens of Israel … this is our test, and we will deliver,” Smotrich tweeted on Saturday evening.
“We are on a collision course,” said Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University. “Israel needs to be smart and operate to thwart attacks but simultaneously not take any steps that endanger the Palestinian Authority or further escalate the violence.”
Netanyahu spent much of his years as prime minister marginalizing the Palestinian issue. In 2020, he signed the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab countries. It was the culmination of his policy to sideline the conflict with the Palestinians. After years in which the Arab world conditioned normalization with Israel only after a solution to the Palestinian issue, the tables turned. It was the result of many geopolitical developments, not only regarding the conflict. But it gave Netanyahu de facto approval for his policy.
During his last campaign, he said one of his main goals was to expand the accords and normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.
“Peace with Saudi Arabia will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world,” Netanyahu said in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel during the campaign. “It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace.”
To achieve that, he is now required to balance between the internal political needs and a large proportion of the Israeli public that voted for a heavy-handed approach to the Palestinians while securing the support of Israel’s international allies to promote further normalization.
“The US is Israel’s strategic ally and without it, Israel’s ability to promote any major processes vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia or Iran is nonexistent,” said Har-Zvi. “There is a critical importance to how Israel maintains its special relations with the US and therefore needs to avoid any clash with the administration.”
While Netanyahu may want to set aside the Palestinian issue, the reality on the ground will not allow him to do so.
“It’s all connected,” said Har-Zvi. “In order to promote normalization with Saudi Arabia, there must first and foremost be a decrease in tensions with the Palestinians. As long as there is tension, there is absolutely no chance. This is a basic precondition for any progress.”
The increase in tensions comes hours before a planned visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Netanyahu may have preferred to speak about the Iranian threat and how to promote an agreement with the Saudis, but now likely to dominate the agenda during the visit is the eruption of violence.
The US administration has already said it was waiting to see how the new government will act on several issues, rather than judge it based on campaign promises. The time for its actions is now. Frequently referring to the “shared values” common to the US and Israel, it appears to be sending Netanyahu a hint of caution regarding proposed sweeping reforms that his coalition plans in the country’s judicial system. But now, also threatening to cast a shadow on the relations, are government intentions to expand settlements in the West Bank in response to the attack.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said he opposes settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“The Americans have consistently said two things to the Israelis. Even before the current flare-up, they warned against unilateral moves on Israel’s part that could lead to further instability,” said Har-Zvi. “But also, they have hinted at their concern of internal changes the government is planning that will re-shuffle the balance of power between the branches.”
Annexation will likely not be tolerated by the White House but moves short of that could go largely unopposed.
Ever present in the background are Netanyahu’s legal troubles. Under trial for several charges of corruption, he denies all wrongdoing but is often accused by his opponents of operating on selfish motives. To push for judicial reforms that could change the outcome of his trial, he needs the support of his coalition partners.
This could also come into play in the current conflict.
“Netanyahu will roll as much as he can and try avoid the points where he has to choose between his coalition and other considerations,” said Rynhold. “In the end, his survival will always be paramount and for that, he depends more on his coalition.”