Netanyahu's crackdown on Jewish extremists unlikely to change West Bank status quo
Approach to battle against extreme right-wing lawbreakers must be changed from the top down; police have chalked up successes in fighting organized crime, but crime families, unlike right-wing rioters, lack a Knesset support base.
Public opinion has had its effect. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushed into quick and relatively decisive action on Wednesday after the lawlessness in the West Bank by extreme right-wing Jewish Israelis. Netanyahu appears to have acted following the extensive media coverage of violence and inaction by the army and police.
To some extent, the public reaction is also linked to the atmosphere created by right-wing MKs' legislative rampage over the past two months. Netanyahu also acted against the backdrop of what was perceived as a problem of governance. When soldiers are attacked and don't respond, the government looks bad, too. Neither the prime minister nor the press acted when those same right-wingers threw stones at Palestinian cars and burned homes and vehicles.
But there were still major skeptics in the army and police yesterday over the effectiveness of the steps approved by an impressive margin. Officers said there is only a small chance the latest steps will fundamentally change the state of law enforcement in the territories.
A system established over decades in the West Bank and the mutual dependence between the settlers, the politicians and the security forces is too strong to be reversed in one fell swoop. The measures approved yesterday include steps in the right direction, but it appears they don't amount to more than a band-aid.
It was announced that soldiers would be given arrest authority - this power has existed in practice for some time. Arrest and exclusion orders also existed in the past, albeit on a smaller scale, while the addition of personnel will be examined over time.
The truth is, the Israeli government missed plenty of chances to deal with this problem in the past - after the massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and amid acts by the Jewish terrorist organization that operated in the territories at the beginning of the last decade. Its members have never been prosecuted.
Even if these steps bear fruit, there are many other obstacles. Netanyahu, for example, approved the decision to have the rioters stand trial in military courts, but it's by no means clear that these courts can handle the cases. It's not clear whether they will be stricter than civilian courts, which have displayed a frightening leniency against ideologically motivated right-wingers.
The Israel Police's West Bank district has been suffering from inadequate staffing, and it's no secret that it can't handle all its tasks. Meanwhile, the Shin Bet security service division in charge of investigating Jews frequently can't meet the burden of proof required in court when it comes to Jewish defendants.
There is no choice but to ask Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues why it only occurred to them to act now after "price tag" hooligans have run wild in the territories for nearly two years. It will also be hard for the army to switch gears regarding the right wing, because it has gotten used to viewing the Israeli citizen, any Israeli citizen, as an ally who has to be protected. It's hard to explain that at a given moment, a small percentage of those citizens have become the enemy.
Significant results in the battle against extreme right-wing lawbreakers will only be achieved if the approach is changed from the top down. The police have chalked up successes in fighting organized crime. But crime families, unlike right-wing rioters, lack a support base in the Knesset.
It could be that a better comparison to Netanyahu's steps on Wednesday is the Trajtenberg report on social issues that was issued after the summer of social protest. It involved public pressure, a lot of good intentions and a few cosmetic changes, but no major transformation as of yet.
The media's agenda is liable to change soon. It's hard to imagine that the latest measures, justified as they may be, will reverse a major trend that has been in place for many years.