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Israel's ruling right hunts for scapegoats in West Bank attacks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had attacked his opponents for not doing enough against Palestinian terrorism, but his own government is now failing to curb a wave of attacks in the West Bank.
HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV — With 35 Jewish victims of attacks by Palestinian assailants less than eight months into the year, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promising to be one of the worst in Israeli history in terms of its counter-terrorism performance. In 2022, under the center-left government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, 34 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks over the entire year. 

The 35th victim was Bat-Sheva Nagari, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three. She was murdered on Monday by two Palestinian gunmen who fired more than 20 rounds at her car as she traveled from the West Bank settlement where she lived. The driver was badly hurt in the attack. Nagari’s 12-year-old daughter, who was also in the car, was physically unhurt. 

This latest wave of attacks is infuriating the more than 2 million Israelis who voted last year for the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties comprising the current government. Netanyahu is in an embarrassing bind. 

Throughout the 18 months of the Bennett-Lapid government, Netanyahu frequently attacked it for incompetence on terrorism and blaming its political cooperation with the Islamist Ra’am party of Mansour Abbas. From the opposition benches, Netanyahu repeatedly promised to wipe out terrorism as soon as he returned to power. Terror smells weakness, Netanyahu repeated at every opportunity, adding that only a strong government can strike fear in the hearts of terrorists.

Netanyahu’s promise has not been filled in the nearly eight months that Israel’s most radical government ever has been in office. For lack of a better response to growing criticism of his government’s failure to quell the latest wave of terror attacks Monday, Netanyahu pointed to his favorite demon: Iran

"Netanyahu is right," a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "Iran is indeed making every effort to push weapons and money into the territories and encourage terrorist attacks, but this is nothing new. The Iranians have been engaged in this for many years. What is new is the increasing daring of terrorists, usually individuals, … the availability of weapons and the growing motivation."

The Netanyahu government has no answer for this type of terrorism. Following Monday’s murder, Knesset member Yitzhak Kreuzer of the Jewish Power party called for revenge.

"A government does not take revenge," another senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "A government fights terrorism, thwarts it, harms its perpetrators, but does not take revenge. Revenge is not a tool of a democratic state." 

Many Israelis argue that this reaction is emblematic of the threat to Israeli democracy posed by the current government as it forges ahead with legislation to weaken the nation’s courts and law enforcement authorities.

The calls for revenge play well with young, radical settlers who carry out almost daily attacks on their Palestinian neighbors. On Monday night, following the killing of the nursery school teacher, dozens threw stones at Palestinian-driven cars and at an Israeli police force that tried to disperse them, even spraying the officers with tear gas. Attempted reprisals also followed Saturday’s murder of an Israeli father and son near the Palestinian village of Huwara, a hotbed of Palestinian militants and settler violence.

At this rate, the continued security deterioration along with the general economic downturn are putting the sixth Netanyahu government at risk. 

"The calls for revenge from within the coalition could further complicate things for Netanyahu,” a senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “None of what he promised is happening; the situation is only getting worse.” 

The source warned that Netanyahu will be unable to contain the radical members of his coalition, who in turn are under pressure from their constituents, some of whom have taken the law into their own hands. "Such events will deepen Israel's negative image in the world and may bury efforts to achieve peace with Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu created a monster that has now turned on him,” the source said.

Venting their frustration and anger, the extremists in the coalition and in the far-right Israeli media are laying blame on Defense Minister Yoav Galant, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy and Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who heads the military’s Central Command tasked with the defense of the West Bank. They have been the subjects of harsh criticism in recent weeks for being too lax on terrorists and for trying to crack down on settler violence. At the same time, Netanyahu's media allies continue to attack the reserve air force pilots who have refused to serve in protest of what they regard as the country’s slide toward dictatorship. 

Turning the military into a punching bag and a target of the extreme right is unusual in Israel, whose military enjoys broad support as the defender of the Jewish homeland. 

Netanyahu is not doing much to stem this tide against the defense establishment and its senior officials. On Monday, shortly after the shooting attack, he arrived at the scene near Hebron with Gallant and expressed support for all participants in the fight against terrorism. But it was too little, too late — and too forced. Senior officers including Gallant himself are demanding firm backing from Netanyahu, which would make it hard for him to hold them responsible for continued Palestinian attacks.

"He will eventually have to take a stand and stick with it. Just as he will not be able to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and make peace with Saudi Arabia, he will not be able to back the IDF and the Shin Bet and at the same time green light attacks on them. Even Netanyahu's maneuvering powers have their limits," said the political source. 

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