Spike in Violence Poses Test for Israel’s Fragile Government

BNEI BRAK, Israel — A recent wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, the deadliest in seven years, has presented a stark challenge to Israel’s fragile coalition government, which has come under criticism from both ends of the political spectrum for policies that critics claim have compounded the risk of violence.

On the right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been criticized for including an Arab party within the coalition, a decision that right-wing critics say has dampened the state’s willingness to police Israel’s Arab minority and limited its ability to respond to the recent attacks, two of which were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel.

On the left, Mr. Bennett has been criticized for making small concessions to the Palestinians while ruling out peace talks or any moves toward the formation of a Palestinian state — an approach that left-wing critics say has increased Palestinian despair, encouraging a minority to respond with violence.

Mr. Bennett is also constrained in his options in responding to the violence by the composition of his ideologically diverse coalition, an eight-party alliance that includes right-wingers like Mr. Bennett, centrists, leftists and a small Arab Islamist party, Raam — the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli government. Ten months into their tenure, the alliance has consistently found ways of circumnavigating their differences, but the violence has accentuated the gaps in their worldviews.

The attacks that killed 11 people over 10 days have also served as a reminder that no matter how much Israelis want the problem to go away so they can go about their lives in peace, as polls show they do, the Palestinian question remains unresolved and a potential powder keg.

Israeli security forces patrolling during clashes with Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank on Friday.Credit…Mosab Shawer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Bennett, like his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has placed the issue on the back burner, treating the conflict as a problem to be contained rather than resolved.

The last peace negotiations petered out in 2014. The Palestinian leadership, divided between Gaza and the West Bank, has failed to form a united negotiating position, while key Israeli leaders, including Mr. Bennett, are blunt about their opposition to a Palestinian state.

But the surge in violence has prompted some Israeli commentators to acknowledge the inherent instability of the status quo, even if that realization has merely hardened people’s pre-existing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s in many ways a tired conversation with few new arguments,” said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. “You don’t see people changing their positions given events,” he added. “They choose their position given where they sit.”

To some witnesses and survivors of the most recent shootings in Bnei Brak, a city in central Israel, the attack by a West Bank Palestinian that killed five people there on Tuesday calcified the perception that Israel has no partner for peace among the Palestinians and that the creation of a Palestinian state would only make life more dangerous for Israelis.

Though Mr. Bennett also opposes Palestinian sovereignty, he came under heavy criticism for his partnership with Raam, and for giving tens of thousands more permits to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to work in Israel.

Posters have popped up across the city calling on residents not to employ Palestinian laborers, and a placard placed beside a memorial to the victims called on Mr. Bennett to resign. In nearby cities, one mayor shut municipal construction sites that often employed Palestinian laborers, and another called on contractors not to hire Palestinians.

A sign demanding Mr. Bennett’s resignation at a memorial for the victims in Bnei Brak this week.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

“We need harsh punishment for the families of the terrorists,” said Moshe Waldman, an accountant in Bnei Brak who witnessed part of the attack. “Destroy their homes. Let’s have real acts of deterrence.”

“The world always tells us, ‘You need to sit and negotiate,’” he added. “But that’s not the reality here. We are getting killed because they hate us.”

But if some criticize Mr. Bennett for working too closely with Arab Israelis and making too many concessions to Palestinians, others fault him for not making enough.

In addition to the work permits, the Israeli government has granted legal status to thousands of West Bank Palestinians previously living in a legal limbo; lent $156 million to the Palestinian Authority, which manages parts of the West Bank; allowed families in Gaza to visit relatives in Israeli jails; and met and communicated more publicly with Palestinian leaders than the previous government did.

But critics argue that this approach, which Mr. Bennett has described as “shrinking the conflict,” does little to improve the fundamental aspects of Palestinian life under occupation.

The Israeli Army still conducts daily raids in areas nominally run by the Palestinian Authority. Israel still operates a two-tier justice system in the West Bank — one for Palestinians and one for Israeli settlers. And the Palestinian dream of statehood remains as distant as ever.

“There is total despair and lack of any political horizon on the Palestinian front,” said Mairav Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels.

“Israelis have become accustomed to continuing the status quo with no price to pay,” Ms. Zonszein added. “But without any political process, the climate is more conducive to violence.”

In the short term, Mr. Bennett has the difficult task of increasing Israeli security and assuaging the concerns of his right-wing base, while avoiding measures that might either further escalate the violence or alienate the Arab lawmakers on whom his coalition depends.

An Israeli Border Police officer guarding an entrance to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Trying to strike that balance, the Israeli Army has sent reinforcements to the West Bank and to the boundary between Israel and Gaza, and the Israeli Police has diverted its attention almost exclusively to counterterrorism.

Mr. Bennett has also called on Israeli civilians to carry licensed firearms, a move that alarmed many Arab citizens of Israel, said Bashaer Fahoum-Jayoussi, co-chairwoman of the board of the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental group that promotes equality between Arabs and Jews.

“This is crazy,” she said. “This is calling for the militarization of the citizens,” and risks compounding the “hate speech that’s been rising in the past week and a half against the Arab community within Israel” with vigilantism.

Attempting to calm tensions, Mr. Bennett has praised his Arab coalition partner, the Raam party leader Mansour Abbas, describing him as a brave and important member of the government. The government continues to allow tens of thousands of Palestinians to enter Israel from the West Bank and Gaza every day. And there has been no change to a plan to allow retirees from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts this weekend.

Mr. Bennett’s office declined to comment for this article.

But one of his closest allies, Micah Goodman, the philosopher who popularized the idea of “shrinking the conflict,” said it was too early to judge the success of the government’s approach in either the West Bank or in Israel itself.

The two main pillars of his idea — “gradual liberation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and gradual integration of the Palestinians within Israel” — will take years, not months, to achieve, he said.

“The dominant emotional experience of Israelis in the conflict is one of fear, and for Palestinians it’s of humiliation,” Mr. Goodman said. Shrinking the conflict is about creating “a reality where there’s less fear for Israelis because there’s less terrorism, and less humiliation for Palestinians because there’s less occupation.”

Israeli soldiers in the West Bank on Friday.Credit…Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA, via Shutterstock

That gradual, difficult process “can’t be judged just nine months into this government,” he added.

If the current wave of violence ebbs soon, it might even be seen as evidence of the effectiveness of the Bennett government’s approach, said Mr. Zalzberg, the Jerusalem-based analyst.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, issued a rare condemnation of the attack in Bnei Brak, a move that Israeli officials interpreted as a result of their increased engagement with him recently.

Should the current violence subside, “it will give a sense that the P.A. is a partner and cooperation with it is valuable when fighting against Israel’s enemies,” Mr. Zalzberg said.

That might “create more political space for steps that further empower the P.A.,” he added, while “obviously falling short of full-fledged Palestinian statehood.”

But to Ms. Fahoum-Jayoussi, these piecemeal measures do not loosen the occupation, but instead give political cover for its entrenchment through the growth of existing settlements and settler violence, which rose in 2021.

“The occupation is ongoing,” she said. “It’s actually getting worse and worse.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel, and Gabby Sobelman from Bnei Brak, Israel.

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