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Israel's Netanyahu loses control as far-right ministers feed West Bank fires

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scrambling to rein in his far-right ministers as the violence in the region worsens by the day.
Netanyahu tours east Jerusalem with Ben Gvir

TEL AVIV — Twenty-two Israeli experts on international law addressed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara Monday, calling for an investigation into lawmakers expressing support for the settler riot in the Palestinian village of Huwara Sunday evening. They referred to what was perceived as inciting statements made before, during and after the riots by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and by Jewish Power Knesset members Zvi Fogel and Limor Son Har-Melekh.

The riots in Huwara came after the killing of two Israeli brothers — Hallel and Yagel Yaniv — by a Palestinian assailant when they drove through the village. The settlers set fire to dozens of Palestinian homes and cars, vandalized property, spread fear among the residents and resisted efforts by Israeli troops to restore calm. One Palestinian resident was killed in the rioting and many were injured. The small town looked like it had been through a pogrom.

There were three other incidents in the West Bank after the Huwara riots, including the killing in the Jordan Valley on Monday evening of American-Israeli dual national Elan Ganeles.

Back at the end of December, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was putting together his far-right messianic government, many questioned how the prime minister would maneuver in the international arena while hobbled by extremists and whether he could keep his promise to the Biden administration that he would be alone at the helm.

Today, just two months since Netanyahu and his ministers were sworn into office, it is abundantly clear that the experiment has failed. Even such a political magician as Netanyahu has proven unable to control the delusional group of religious nationalists with which he has surrounded himself.

The appointment of radicals such as Smotrich, leader of Religious Zionism, and Jewish Power party head Itamar Ben-Gvir to key ministerial posts has emboldened the radical right and West Bank settlers, a former senior military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They feel they are in power and cannot be deterred, not even by government security forces,” said the source, referring to the Huwara rampage.

The extremist settlers' violence is not limited to attacks on Arabs. Following two deadly terror attacks in which three Israelis (the two brothers and the Israeli-American visitor) were murdered by Palestinian terrorists on Sunday and Monday, settlers attacked army forces sent to restore calm and attempted to run over an Israeli officer. He was saved by soldiers who opened fire at the Jewish driver.  

Another former senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that there has been a "complete loss of control," saying, "This government promised stability, governance and security. At the moment things appear very close to anarchy."

Netanyahu is a master at balancing acts, but this time he appears to be wobbling. On Sunday, just hours before the murder of the Yaniv brothers, Netanyahu dispatched Shin Bet director Ronen Bar and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi to meet senior Palestinian Authority officials in the Jordanian Red Sea town of Aqaba. The meeting, held under US auspices with the participation of Egypt and Jordan, focused on ways to ease the West Bank violence that has been simmering for months.

Netanyahu would have undoubtedly been apoplectic had the previous center-left Israeli government held discussions with the Palestinians at the height of a terror wave. But this Netanyahu acceded to Palestinian demands raised in Aqaba to scale down the raids by Israeli security forces on Palestinian towns and to suspend further construction in the Jewish West Bank settlements for four months and the legalization of illegal outposts for at least six months. He also ignored calls by the extremists in his government to recall the Israeli delegation from Aqaba amid the terror attack that same day.

Following the meeting, the White House issued a statement saying the two sides had “affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them and [agreed] to work towards a just and lasting peace.” Such an outcome would have been unimaginable under the previous government, which Netanyahu castigated daily during his 18 months in political exile for its allegedly dovish policies.

One hand of the Netanyahu government is trying to douse the flames, while the other is intent on increasing the turmoil. Even as one arm of the Netanyahu government resumes negotiations with the Palestinians, the other is encouraging vigilantes to burn down Palestinian villages and forge ahead with settlement construction, rejecting any deal with the United States on these matters.

"This allegedly full-fledged right-wing government has failed miserably,” a top official in the previous government told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “The extremists are unable to govern; they are unable to run a state; they are pushing Israel into anarchy. The security situation has only deteriorated, with 14 Jews murdered in terrorist attacks since the government assumed power, and the government has no answer."

The US administration is at a loss in the face of this violence, compounded by the controversial judicial overhaul the Netanyahu government is fast-tracking through the Knesset. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides presided over the contacts ahead of the Aqaba conference. He maintains continuous contact with Netanyahu, who also hears from other senior American officials. Over the weekend, Netanyahu met with a visiting delegation of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and heard their views about the judicial blitz to curb the power of the country’s top court.

Nides and his superiors in Washington did not like Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant's surrender to Smotrich, who demanded control over the Defense Ministry agencies tasked with the administration of Palestinian civilian life in the territories. At the same time, the Americans understand the constraints under which Netanyahu is operating and say that Israel will be tested by its actions, not its words. There must be some comfort in knowing that significant land management decisions will be handled within a mechanism in which Netanyahu and Gallant will also participate. But judging by the rampage in Huwara this week, the Americans probably realize they cannot really rely on it. 

Is Netanyahu aware of the future toward which he is manipulating Israel? Probably. Could he turn it around? Probably not. As always, he will keep trying to juggle.

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