As Violence Rears Its Head, Could Netanyahu's Government Be Next Casualty?

The PM showed restraint and self-control during a week of anger, pain and escalating violence, but he knows a third intifada can end his rule.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman
Illustration by Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The brutal shock that jolted the Israeli public upon learning that Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah had been murdered, only intensified after the release of the full recording of the call made by Shaar to the police. In it the kidnappers’ laughter was heard, apparently after they shot the three youngsters at point-blank range. For 18 consecutive days the army had fed Israelis a hollow mantra – “The working assumption is that the kidnap victims are alive” – until it turned out, on Monday evening, that the real working assumption was the exact opposite.

That harsh sense of disillusionment triggered the despicable phenomena of the past few days: the tsunami of demands for revenge, the attacks on Arabs, the rampaging militancy and the public’s rightward radicalization. The murder Tuesday night of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from Shuafat, hurled East Jerusalem neighborhoods into a whirlpool of violent unrest. And in the background was the incessant firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip.

This dangerous, volatile mix of surging violence is confronting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his third government with complex dilemmas, and putting their ability to show restraint and self-control to a daily test.

In the meantime, the triumvirate of cautious Netanyahu, sober-minded Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and laid-back Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has blocked military escalation. These three gentlemen apparently understand that at the end of the day, the kidnapping and murder are, with all the pain and grief, a local, tactical event, not a strategic development that necessitates a regional conflagration. As of this writing (Thursday morning), the three were doing all they could, judiciously and responsibly, to keep the lid on.

Nevertheless, the feeling at the policy-making level is that the gates of hell are liable to open at any moment, even if no one wants them to. It’s frightening to think how closely the present state of affairs resembles the period just before the eruption of the first intifada, at the end of 1987.

Back then, in the midst of a political deadlock, four workers from the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza were killed when an Israeli truck driver hit the taxi they were traveling in. The Palestinians were certain that the event, an accident, was a reprisal for the murder of a Jew two days earlier in the Gaza City market.

The disturbances that broke out morphed into a years-long civil uprising. It also brought about an end to the Likud’s government, under Yitzhak Shamir, in 1992. It would be safe bet this scenario is now giving Netanyahu sleepless nights and uneasy days.

After five-six years in power and zero progress toward peace, despair and pessimism are mounting and are liable to trigger a third intifada – just the recipe for his ouster as prime minister. If Netanyahu loses his last card – quiet on the security front – what will persuade the nation to elect him a fourth time?

A time to build?

The security cabinet meeting that convened urgently at the Prime Minister’s Office after the bodies of the three kidnapped teens were found bore all the hallmarks of a dramatic, security-political development. One of those formative meetings that in the near and distant past engendered wars and military operations. The ministers were taken aback, to put it mildly, to discover Housing Minister Uri Ariel at the entrance to the conference room.

A strong sense of déjà-vu was in the air. Exactly a week earlier, they had witnessed the farce in which Ariel came to a similar meeting uninvited and was unceremoniously thrown out. This time, though, he was in the lobby, cajoling the ministers in his buddy-buddy style to press Netanyahu to unleash a massive building campaign in the territories, to legalize settler outposts and more – all as “an appropriate Zionist response” to the boys’ murder.

Could anything be more harmful to Israel, bring it condemnation and dispel instantaneously the international community’s manifestations of grief and solidarity with the bereaved families and the mourning public, than “declarations” of new construction plans?

As reinforcement, Ariel brought Ze’ev (“Zambish”) Hever, the builder of settlements, a powerful figure in the settlers’ Yesha council and a convicted member of the Jewish terrorist underground of the 1980s. Like seasoned lobbyists, like two professional kibitzers, they pounced on the ministers. This is Israel: In the conference room matters of life and death are discussed, but just outside, it’s a Turkish bazaar.

Okay, this is more or less standard operating procedure for Hever. But what about Ariel? True, he took a major step when he discarded his ever-present sandals and put on shoes upon being installed as a minister. But the cynical, obsessive, right-wing settler mentality – which will not let a single human tragedy go by without exploiting the opportunity to stick another unnecessary outpost atop some boulder-strewn West Bank hill – is still there.

Pursuing this worthy governing norm, the next day Ariel urged his Twitter followers to call the Prime Minister’s Bureau, at 02-6703332, and “exert pressure” on Netanyahu to allow the housing minister to build in the Jordan Rift Valley.

Not long ago, Ariel protested the government’s decision to release security prisoners. Of course, in any properly run, sane country, a cabinet minister who urges his followers to disrupt the daily routine of officials in the office of the country’s highest leader so as to promote his own private agenda would be summarily dismissed. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Another jaw-dropping scene at the Prime Minister’s Office was the arrival in the same car of Netanyahu and the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, for the security cabinet meeting. The two were scheduled to meet in the Knesset when the three kidnapped teens’ bodies were found. That development disrupted Netanyahu’s schedule, and he offered Bennett a ride from the Knesset to the Prime Minister’s Office, nearby.

If anyone in the security cabinet was worried that this surprising show of intimacy between Netanyahu and Bennett (who are now bitter rivals, their former friendship abruptly curtailed) hinted at the results of the meeting, their fears were soon dispelled. Bennett’s gung-ho proposals were rejected by most of the ministers, led by Netanyahu.

Still, Bennett can take pride in one hefty security achievement. It turns out that the scandalous scene he caused in the security cabinet when he invited Uri Ariel to a meeting there last week – as a protest against Netanyahu’s inviting ministers Jacob Perry and Yuval Steinitz as observers – left an impression on Netanyahu.

For his part, Perry, a former Shin Bet security chief and a leading expert on Palestinians, had been invited regularly to all the security cabinet meetings since the creation of the Palestinians’ conciliation government, but is no longer on the guest list. He wasn’t present at the last three meetings, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The danger – for Bennett – has passed.

Right hand, left hand

The security cabinet meeting, which was studded with acrimonious exchanges between Ya’alon and Bennett, ended without decisions being made. This was the outcome urged by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, from Yisrael Beiteinu, an experienced, sanguine politician who bears the scar of the police failure to respond properly to the distress call during the kidnapping.

“My blood is boiling, too,” he said, “but we have to act from the head, not the gut. Nothing will happen if we leave here without making decisions, calm down and come back tomorrow.” He also scolded Bennett, who proposed a large-scale military strike against the Gaza Strip.

“What is there for us to be looking for in Gaza right now?” Aharonovitch said. “Did we lose something in Gaza? Our ‘address’ is Hamas in Judea and Samaria, and that’s where we have to act.”
By the way, the leader of Aharonovitch’s party, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, suggested this week, while on a trip overseas, that Israel launch Operation Defensive Shield II, in Gaza (the first came during the second intifada, in the West Bank). Luckily for him, he wasn’t at the cabinet meeting, or he would have been reprimanded, too.

Actually, does anyone have a clue what Lieberman wants? With his left hand, he proposes that Israel sign a comprehensive peace treaty with all the Arab states and with the Palestinians. He’s apparently no longer fazed by the price Israel will have to pay for this. And yet with his right hand he pushes for the re-conquest of Gaza – a move that would trigger a war filled with missiles and get Israel entangled with the whole world.

Many superlatives have been heaped in the past on Lieberman’s sophistication, intelligence and supreme reason. This time, though, he seems to have surpassed himself to a point where he has simply become incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.

Obviously, Lieberman’s behavior is driven basically by his struggle with Bennett for the votes of the ideological right wing. Bennett has few, if any, inhibitions. He can propose whatever wacky ideas he wants, knowing they will be rejected and get no further than his Facebook page or the headlines. In this arena, it’s difficult for Lieberman, who routinely meets and talks with his international counterparts, to compete with him. Still, the foreign minister is trying to maintain a gung-ho posture in order not to lose support among right-wingers who are not necessarily ideology-driven. Hence his proposal to conquer Gaza.

At the beginning of the security cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Netanyahu asked all the participants who are not ministers (heads of security branches, advisers, intelligence personnel) to leave the room. After they left, he blasted the participants for the leaks from the previous meeting. “I will not tolerate that,” he warned.

As of Thursday, the warning had its effect: Nothing was leaked from the sessions of Tuesday and Wednesday.

As the prime minister administered his tongue-lashing, some ministers cast an accusing glance at one of their colleagues, others lowered their eyes. The tension between the moderates (Ya’alon, Aharonovitch, Finance Minister Lapid, Justice Minister Livni – and Netanyahu, too) and the militants (Bennett, Lieberman and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan) is mounting and becoming personal, poisoned and acrid.

Who remembers today that in 2009, Ya’alon wanted to appoint Bennett as his chief of staff in the Strategic Affairs Ministry? That idea was scuttled by the couple from Balfour Street in Jerusalem, Bibi and Sara, who vetoed the appointment.

A few hours after the Wednesday meeting of the cabinet, ministers from the camp of calm accused Bennett of being the cause of the nationalist disturbances in the country.

“That man has already passed the stage of cynicism,” they said. “His behavior is wantonly dangerous. He doesn’t understand the difference between being a minister in the government of Israel and a minister in the government of Facebook. His proposals were childish at best and nutty at worst. He is inflaming the situation. There is a Jewish rabble that is running wild in the streets, and Bennett has a part in that. We are appalled,” these ministers added, “that this man has ambitions of reaching the political summit.”

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