The stabbing deaths of two Israelis Monday — a soldier in Tel Aviv and a settler in the West Bank Gush Etzion bloc — are but the latest incidents in a growing wave of attacks by Palestinians that don’t threaten the stability of the Israeli state but pose a potentially mortal threat to the narrative of its leader.
Benjamin Netanyahu is now the longest serving prime minister since the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, having overcome the notorious volatility of Israel’s parliamentary political system by keeping the country relatively safe and prosperous. Netanyahu has largely avoided presenting grand visions of Israel’s future; instead, he has made the stability of the status quo his political calling card, and that has persuaded Israelis to elect him three times.
To an international community that asks when Israel is going to end its occupation of the territories captured in the war of 1967 and accept the establishment there of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu dismisses the question as misplaced, because “in the Middle East, Israel has always been an island of stability and democracy in a sea of instability,” as he put it in 2013. In a region torn by mounting violence and turmoil, he argues, Israel cannot be expected to risk bringing extremism to its doorstep by allowing Palestinian independence.
Since last summer, however, events have conspired to disrupt the tranquillity upon which Netanyahu has based his political appeal. The summer’s violence in Gaza reached deep into Israel, even briefly closing Ben Gurion International Airport to the outside world. And violence has continued in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and now within Israel’s 1967 borders despite the precarious truce that ended the Gaza fighting two months ago. Scarcely a day passes now without Israel’s news cycle being dominated by hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians.
The past two weeks have seen an assassination attempt on Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a leader of the movement to reclaim Jerusalem’s Temple Mount from Al-Aqsa mosque; the killing of a Palestinian citizen by Israeli police, which was caught on a security camera and led to widespread anger among Palestinians; stabbing and driving attacks claiming the lives of six Israelis; and at least three Palestinian teenagers killed by the Israeli military in the West Bank. Protests now take place routinely in East Jerusalem and in some Palestinian towns and villages within Israel’s borders. In some incidents, stones were thrown at cars on northern highways and in East Jerusalem and at the city’s light rail, hailed until recently as a symbol for the successful unification of the city under Israeli sovereignty (although Israel’s claim to the whole city is not internationally recognized) but now a target of Palestinian rage at the deepening Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.
The diverse nature of these incidents and their geographical spread evokes memories in some Israelis of the early days of the first (1987) and second (2000) Palestinian intifadas, when clashes suddenly began to occur in quick succession. Yet recent events don’t remotely match the scale of the mass protests of the late 1980s, when tens of thousands took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza. And their nature is quite different from the second intifada, in which organized Palestinian groups tried to direct events. This year’s incidents — from the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in Hebron five months ago to the latest stabbing in Tel Aviv — are at once isolated and connected, local and uncoordinated and yet obviously part of a bigger picture.
Facing this disruptive new reality, Netanyahu has begun telling Israelis they are facing an extremist offensive he likens to that of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). During his U.N. speech in September, he linked the Hamas movement, with which Israel traded fire in the summer, to ISIL and even the Nigerian Boko Haram group. The recent stabbings and hit-and-run killings are linked, in Netanyahu’s narrative, with the rockets launched from Gaza and even with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ protests over Israeli actions at Jerusalem’s holy sites. Last week’s vehicle attack that killed an Israeli in Jerusalem was, Netanyahu said, “a direct result of [Abbas’] incitement … We are in the midst of a struggle for Jerusalem, and I have no doubt that we will triumph. We are deploying all the forces that we can. It could be a prolonged struggle, and we need to unite the entire nation behind it."
Netanyahu’s narrative has no place for Palestinians responding to the ever-expanding occupation in the form of new settlements and new restrictions or to settlers moving into East Jerusalem and right-wing Cabinet ministers setting their sights on the Temple Mount — the sort of factors that figure prominently in outside (and in many Israeli) analyses of the causes of the surge in Palestinian rage. In the prime minister’s narrative, Israel is simply another front in the regional struggle against what he calls “Islamic extremism” and should be supported by Western and allied Arab powers rather than be asked at this point to make any concessions to the Palestinians.
A prime minister who promised Israel that it could have tranquillity without ending the occupation now explains the disruption of that tranquillity as an expression of the same regional menace against which Western and Arab powers are now unleashing airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
“We will act against those who throw stones, block roads and call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in place of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said Monday, after protests ignited by the police killing of 22-year-old Israeli citizen Heir Elhamdan, who was shot in the back while fleeing after banging on a patrol car’s window with a knife. The prime minister threatened to revoke the citizenship of “those who call for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Some Israeli observers see Netanyahu’s rhetoric in the context of his mounting political troubles. “More than anything, Netanyahu’s current extremism tells of coming elections,” wrote Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid in the paper’s Hebrew-language edition on Tuesday. Netanyahu's third government is by far the weakest he has led: He routinely faces blistering public criticism from senior Cabinet ministers and has great difficulty passing legislation. Environment Minister Amir Peretz from Tzipi Livni’s Tnua’h party resigned from the government on Sunday, stating in a TV interview that “Netanyahu is not the solution. He is the problem.” Peretz is a veteran politician known for reading the shifting political tides, and his departure may be as much about the next elections as it is about the current coalition.
Netanyahu is well aware that a growing sense of insecurity among Israelis could prove politically costly. A similar wave of isolated attacks in 1992 preceded then–Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s election loss to Yitzhak Rabin. Despite the longevity of his tenure, Netanyahu won all three of his elections by very narrow margins, and unlike other Likud leaders such as Ariel Sharon, he has never won many votes from the center or the left of Israel’s political spectrum. Israeli electoral math suggests that Netanyahu’s prospects for re-election depend on energizing the right and its religious allies.
As a result, history suggests, Netanyahu is more likely to respond with harsher security measures to the latest Palestinian attacks — measures that opinion polls show are popular among the Israeli public. But history also makes clear that any respite earned by a harsher security crackdown will be, at best, temporary, and if the international criticism of last summer’s Gaza campaign is any indication, it could be diplomatically costly as well. European governments have begun moving in recent weeks to recognize Palestinian statehood as a rebuke to Israel’s policies, in the absence of a peace process that offers an end to the occupation. Netanyahu could pay a significant political price if less ideologically minded Israeli voters believe his policies are isolating Israel from Western nations. Some Israelis already do.