Analysis |

Far-right Leader's Insistence on Jerusalem Flag March Is Political

Latest provocation from Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich, in the form of second flag march through Arab parts of Jerusalem's Old City, planned for Thursday, has incendiary potential

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Religious Zionism alliance leader Bezalel Smotrich abd Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben-Gvir, March Credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s obviously only a coincidence, but somehow the leaders of the Religious Zionism party decided this year, of all years, that it was insufficient to mark the end of the Six-Day War according to its Jewish calendar date, which fell on May 10 this year. On Friday, posters appeared announcing people to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem 54 years ago on its anniversary in the Gregorian calendar. A second Flag March is planned for Thursday.

Last week, I wrote that the unprecedented political crisis could encounter renewed security tension along the Green Line and in the Palestinian territories. The new provocation from Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich, in the form of the march, strengthens this suspicion. On Saturday, Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman issued an extraordinary warning, saying political violence could end in physical harm, amid the efforts to form a new coalition.

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The insistence on holding the march this year gave Hamas a pretext to fire rockets from the Gaza Strip to the Jerusalem area. It ignited a round of fighting that lasted 11 days and included heavy rocket barrages on southern and central Israel. Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, is again threatening to defend Al-Aqsa Mosque from a Jewish threat. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict now looks like an ongoing deja-vu. The two sides aren’t even trying to invent original excuses for renewing the tension.

The true reason for initiating another march is political, as anyone can see. The previous escalation pushed Naftali Bennett into a corner and forced him to declare that he was leaving coalition negotiations with Yair Lapid. When the fighting stopped, Bennett reconsidered and renewed the talks. They ended Wednesday with a joint statement saying they had cobbled together a government. The Knesset is expected to convene within 10 days to approve the new government. A renewed stoking of tensions in Jerusalem is a sure-fire way to sow confusion and embarrassment in parts of this exceptional coalition. The timing of this march could be critical.

The police said Saturday they will permit the parade, with some changes to the route in order to minimize friction with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The issue is slated to be discussed Sunday. Other security agencies have not yet expressed their opinion on this issue publicly. In May, too, they did so at the last moment, too late to calm the situation.

It would be better for the heads of these agencies to say what they think about this dangerous provocation at an earlier stage. This applies to Defense Minister Benny Gantz as well. Representatives of the Shin Bet and Gantz told Haaretz Saturday they would reach an opinion during the discussions.

In the background are other sources of conflict in the city. By Tuesday, the attorney general is expected to present to the High Court of Justice his position on the dispute around the evacuation of Palestinian families from houses owned by Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. On Friday there was a demonstration around a similar problem in Silwan, near the walls of the Old City.

Israelis wave national flags during a Jerusalem Day march in MayCredit: Ariel Schalit / AP

That’s not all. Sinwar is not operating in a void. For several days there have been rising tensions in the Gaza Strip regarding the vague manner in which the fighting stopped. The cease-fire, achieved through Egyptian mediation, only included a commitment of Israel and Hamas to maintain the quiet. Hamas is now demanding that the monthly cash delivery of $30 million from Qatar be made this week. Israel hopes to use last month’s fighting to change the rules of the game, delivering the money via the Palestinian Authority, a demand Hamas rejects.

In tandem, Israel is attempting to predicate the delivery of this money and mainly the reconstruction of demolished buildings in Gaza on a solution to the problem of its prisoners and missing soldiers. Hamas is willing to advance on this issue but is still demanding a high price, a massive release of Palestinian prisoners, including senior ones, something Israel will find it hard to comply with.

Argaman’s announcement Saturday night included a harsh warning against increased extremism in political debate, especially on social media. “This discourse could be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as permitting violent and illegal action that could, perish the thought, reach the level of physical harm,” Argaman said.

He remarks were mainly directed against increased incitement, to the level of insane remarks, against Bennett and his fellow Yamina faction members, since Yamina’s decision to join the new government. Shin Bet began Thursday to provide bodyguards, while the Knesset Guard has provided security for Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at the Israeli Knesset, FridayCredit: Emil Salman

Argaman, whose term was extended by Netanyahu last month for several months, knows the history of his organization full well. He certainly remembers that a few weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, then-Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon (who was forced to resign after the assassination), convened a group of senior media commentators and told them he feared there would be an attempt on Rabin’s life. The remarks Saturday night recall that warning – in this case, they are directed first and foremost at Netanyahu himself, members of whose household are the source of some of the incitement against Bennett.

Alongside these events, it should not be ignored that quiet has not really returned to the Arab communities in Israel. The atmosphere in Jaffa, Acre, Ramla and other mixed cities remains tense. In some of them, hundreds of Jews arrive over the weekend to join the local garin torani, religious Zionist movement members who move into underdeveloped urban areas – to the displeasure of their Arab neighbors – and run cultural and religious activities of various kinds.

There is increased anger among Arab Israelis because of the extensive arrests carried out by the police following the riots (more than 2,100 people were arrested, 92 percent of them Arab). In addition, there is great concern over the deepening economic crisis; in some Arab cities a decline of nearly 80 percent has been reported in commerce, restaurants and car repair shops because Jews have stopped visiting these cities.

Even if this week and the march pass peacefully, it seems that we’ve seen a first taste of what the Bennett-Lapid government can expect, if it ever gets sworn in. The opposition to its right and the Palestinians will continue to challenge it on the assumption that this is an inexperienced and unstable government which can be rattled by any military tension, its continued existence constantly questioned.

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