JERUSALEM — Two Israeli citizens – a father and a son – were shot and wounded Saturday morning at the Ir David east Jerusalem neighborhood. The assailant, reportedly a 13-years-old Palestinian, was shot and wounded by the son, a soldier who carried with him his weapon. The attack followed another attack Friday night, also in Jerusalem, where seven people were killed by a Palestinian assailant, and three others were injured.
Both attacks are apparently being considered retaliation for Wednesday's Israeli counter-terrorism raid on the West Bank town of Jenin, in which at least nine Palestinians including two civilians were killed, the Palestinian health ministry reported. Israel said those killed were affiliated with Islamic Jihad and Hamas in order to pre-empt attacks, including in Jerusalem. In the unending cycle of attacks and counterattacks, over 10 rockets were fired from Gaza on southern Israel just hours after the Jenin raid. Israel responded with aerial bombings on Gaza.
From the opposition benches where he spent 18 months before returning to power last month, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu periodically blamed the government for every attack. He argued that "terrorists" were encouraged to act in the face of a weak and illegitimate government that included the Islamist Israeli-Arab Ra’am party and what he labeled “leftists and liberals” and was therefore imperiling Israeli lives.
Netanyahu’s old comments are coming back to bite him now, except that the opposition he faces is different. None of its leaders, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, former Defense Minister Benny Gantz and former Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman rushed to the site of the Friday night attack and take advantage of the killings to stir up public anger and incitement against Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s situation is more complex than ever. Israel is used to attacks, even in synagogues and even with mass casualties. But throughout its 75-year history, the helm of state was in the hands of balanced, responsible leaders who realized the implications of an unmeasured Israeli response to such attacks, and its potential for regional escalation. This time, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is made up of radical nationalists and ultra-religious forces, with not a moderating, balanced figure in sight. The only one who might have fit the bill, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri, was fired last week in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling.
Netanyahu is surrounded by extremists known for exploiting every bloody attack on Jews to incite against Arabs. Those radicals never missed an opportunity to boast that once in power, they would stamp out terrorism against Jews with an iron hand. Now they are there – National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, all clamoring for far-reaching crackdown measures, some of them of questionable legality, in order to make good on their vows.
These are Netanyahu’s partners on whom he depends for his political survival, hoping they can keep him out of jail by pushing through reforms that would suspend or upend the corruption charges he faces. Netanyahu is looking around desperately for a savior from among the opposition forces allied against him – former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, even Lapid at a pinch, and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, believe it or not. Former allies such as Netanyahu’s one-time Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon or ex-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, or former Likud Knesset members Benny Begin and Yuval Steinitz, have all fled Netanyahu or been kicked out by him in recent years, leaving him with the pyromaniacs he must now work with.
On Thursday, the day after the deadly Jenin raid but before the rockets from Gaza, Netanyahu convened a situation assessment with his top ministers, including Ben-Gvir. Defense Minister Yoav Galant, on a visit to the US, took part remotely. At issue was a planned march by hardcore right-wing activists, Ben-Gvir loyalists, through Old Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, a perennial hotbed of violence.
Security official briefed the ministers, all the while looking at Ben-Gvir, explaining that such a parade on the day after Israeli forces killed nine Palestinian in Jenin was akin to putting a match to a dynamite keg. Ben-Gvir was not to be dissuaded. He insisted that the security officials explain to him the link between a counter-terrorism operation in Jenin and a “tame” march in Jerusalem, and demanded to know what “excuse” would be used to ban the event.
He was given explanations. Netanyahu himself explained the explosive nature of such activity, arguing that the event must be contained and calm be restored. We have no desire to stir up violence prior to Ramadan, said Netanyahu, referring to the holy Muslim month less than two months from now. When Ben-Gvir insisted that the parade be allowed, Netanyahu insisted that friction must be prevented, or else the situation could explode.
On Friday night, after the attack near the Jerusalem synagogue, Ben-Gvir arrived at the scene (despite being a religious Jew who does not drive on the Sabbath). He was followed soon after by Netanyahu. They had to come. Staying away would have exposed them to the ire of their base at a sensitive political time for them. Ben-Gvir, surrounded by angry neighborhood residents, conceded that it was up to him, especially as the minister in charge of the police, to crack down on terrorism. He then joined the crowd who was calling “death to terrorists”.
Ben-Gvir will soon realize that such slogans are of little use on his new perch. There are no elections in the offing. This is real life. Anyone who insists that millions of Israelis remain intertwined with millions of Palestinians cannot prevent terrorism by ordinary means. If he steps up Israel’s response, he opens himself up to charges of war crimes. This is Ben-Gvir’s moment. His promises to stamp out attacks and restore personal safety are being tested. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is under siege, isolated together with reactionary forces, with no way out.