Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Is this week’s Palestinian violence Netanyahu’s parting sin? (May 10, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Is this Week’s Palestinian Violence Netanyahu’s Parting Sin?


Q. What is more significant for Israel’s overall wellbeing this week: forming a post-Netanyahu unity government, or managing and reducing Palestinian violence in Jerusalem and Gaza?

A. Only a rational coalition not ruled by a paranoid pyromaniac like Benjamin Netanyahu can act cogently to prevent violence in the Palestinian sphere. That is an argument in favor of a new coalition that ushers Netanyahu out after 12 consecutive years in power. On the other hand, if the current political and police mismanagement of Jerusalem continues, escalating violence and tensions there and possibly in Gaza could render coalition-building both more urgent and more difficult.


Q. Let’s start with the coalition currently being negotiated. You have been predicting failure, and a fifth round of elections. Do the determination and political smarts displayed by Mssrs Lapid, Saar and Bennet prove you wrong?

A. They could, and I hope they do.

Yair Lapid, Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennet began their quest for a coalition by maneuvering PM Netanyahu into trying first to form a government, but without the votes he needed. They were lucky. Netanyahu did not anticipate that on the far ultra-nationalist right the Religious Zionist party led by Bezalel Smotrich, whom Netanyahu helped get elected, would hold fast to its blatantly racist refusal to participate in a coalition supported by one or more Arab parties.

Netanyahu’s failure, acknowledged in the middle of last week, generated concerted efforts on his part to buy off members of Lapid and Bennet’s prospective coalition. Netanyahu hoped to thwart their efforts by eroding any hope they might have of gathering a majority right-center-left coalition with Arab support. At the time of writing on Monday, one member of Bennet’s Yamina party had defected by declaring he would not support an anti-Netanyahu coalition. Fear of more defections motivated Lapid and Bennet to accelerate their coalition negotiations with the objective of presenting an unassailable fait accompli within days. By Monday they had yet to declare success.


Q. What will an anti-Netanyahu or post-Netanyahu coalition look like?

A. What is apparently emerging is a left-center-right coalition dominated by its right-wing minority. Only 12 of the minimum 61 votes required belong to Yamina and New Hope, the two parties with solid right-wing credentials that have bolted the Netanyahu camp. Yet without them the left and center have no coalition. Moreover, no one contests the fact that, overall, the Knesset has a right-religious majority. Hence the centrist Lapid and Labor and Meretz on the left appear prepared to grant Naftali Bennet’s Yamina and Gideon Saar’s New Hope their pick of the more important or “value” (a term cultivated by the right-religious) portfolios, like justice, education and domestic security. At the political center, Yesh Atid’s Lapid has a lock on the Foreign Ministry, Blue White’s Gantz is already entrenched in the Ministry of Defense, and Avigdor Liberman (also right wing, but anti-Netanyahu for years) gets Finance.

Bennet, despite being backed by only six MKs, will be the first prime minister in a rotation arrangement, to be followed after a year and a half or two by Lapid (17 MKs). That looks illogical and absurd, but it’s the price the right-wing anti-Netanyahu renegades have apparently extracted from Lapid. Labor and Meretz will suffice with lesser ministries even though numerically they equal Yamina and New Hope--all in the name of removing Netanyahu from the Balfour Street PM’s residence.

On the other hand, to maintain balance, all parties to this prospective coalition have reportedly agreed to freeze any ‘ideological’ demands (e.g., right-wing demands to curtail the power of the High Court of Justice) for at least a year. At the juncture of politics and corruption, only measures to restrict the length of a prime minister’s term and prevent indicted politicians from aspiring to that office will be enacted immediately. Borrowing from the current dysfunctional two-headed government, major decisions will have to be consensual.

The Palestinian issue will be treated with a status quo approach, with due attention paid not to anger the Biden administration or, for that matter, Israel’s new normalization partners in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Rabat. New initiatives will be avoided.

Meanwhile there is plenty of ostensibly non-ideological work to be done: passing a budget for the first time in two years, approving a host of high-level civil service appointments, fortifying health services in the aftermath of corona, granting the IDF long-delayed acquisitions budgets. The mere fact of a functioning government will be welcome news to Israelis. And in a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox Haredim, perhaps a little progress can be made toward liberalizing national Jewish institutions like conversion and the Western Wall.

Raam’s demands for enhanced budgets, zoning rights, security and law and order for Arab communities will be fully met; Raam leader Mansour Abbas is reportedly considering becoming a government minister to oversee these allocations. The competing more secular Joint Arab List is weighing Lapid’s request to at least abstain on the Knesset vote of confidence in the new government.


Q. Moving to the severe unrest in Jerusalem, is the violence anticipated this week an inevitable aspect of the last days of Ramadan combined with Naqba Day and Jerusalem Day?

A. A confluence of Jerusalem-centered holy days and holidays of both Judaism and Islam is always dangerous. This week the Hebrew, Muslim and secular calendars are all colliding. Laylat al-Qadr, when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, was observed Sunday. Jerusalem Day, commemorating Israel’s conquest and ‘unification’ of Jerusalem in 1967, was to be celebrated on Monday by right-religious Jews with a provocative ‘flag march’ through the Old City. Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan) is on Thursday. Naqba Day (May 15, Israel’s original Independence Day on the secular calendar, but here commemorating the 1948 Palestinian defeat and exile) is on Saturday. Add in the Israel High Court’s anticipated decision regarding Jewish claims on Arab homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, plus the recent cancellation (“postponement”) of Palestinian elections, and the outcome is incendiary.

Still, four additional actors are making matters worse. Two are Islamist: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and Islamist Arab citizens of Israel from the country’s north who come to Jerusalem for the Muslim holiday and engage in incitement alongside prayer. Hamas, in particular, sees an opportunity to compete for political leadership in the West Bank in the vacuum created by the Palestinian Authority leadership’s recent decision to cancel elections. To that end, Hamas is promoting violence in Jerusalem and, to a more measured but escalating degree, firing rockets and launching incendiary balloons from Gaza. (To be fair, in the current atmosphere the Palestinian Authority and Fateh are engaging in their own share of anti-Israel incitement too.)

The fact that Mansour Abbas and his Islamist Raam party are actively involved in negotiations regarding parliamentary support for the emerging new Lapid-Bennet coalition figures into this constellation. Excessive Arab-Jewish violence in Jerusalem on the occasion of Muslim holidays could conceivably oblige Abbas to back off from collaborating politically--and without precedent--with a Zionist government. On the other hand, Jerusalem violence arguably will hasten support for a new coalition by Raam and even by the more secular Joint List, insofar as it is the outgoing Netanyahu government that is blamed, justifiably, for current Arab-Jewish tensions.

This brings us to the third negative actor: the ultra-nationalists in the Netanyahu government and beyond who exploit Jerusalem Day to make a provocative statement regarding the myth of a united Jerusalem since 1967. The flag march traverses Arab neighborhoods. Concurrent prayer on the Temple Mount by Jewish religious activists is understood by Palestinians--indeed, by Muslims everywhere--as a provocative Jewish demand to take over al-Aqsa and build a Third Temple.

Note that Israel’s far-right-religious ultra-nationalists are actively stirring up trouble in Jerusalem not just now but throughout the year. The case before the High Court involves their demand to evict Palestinian refugees who were settled by Jordan after 1948 in formerly Jewish homes in Sheikh Jarrah in then-Jordanian East Jerusalem. Since 1967 (‘United Jerusalem’) Israel controls Sheikh Jarrah. Over the past decade, Jewish extremists have persuaded Israeli courts to evict the Palestinians and ‘return’ these houses to Jews. The problem is that these same courts refuse to evict Jews from formerly Arab homes in West Jerusalem that were abandoned by Palestinians in 1948. There is not even a semblance of balanced justice here, not to mention morality and decency.

Finally, a fourth actor contributing to Arab-Jewish clashes and escalation is the Israel Police, who under fledgling Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai are simply making one mistake after another in Jerusalem. In recent days alone, the Police and Border Patrol have without adequate cause thrown a stun grenade into the al-Aqsa Mosque, used excess violence against demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, and deployed excess force on the Temple Mount esplanade. Last weekend the Israel Police stopped all traffic on the main road to Jerusalem in an abortive effort to prevent extremist Israeli Arab Islamists from reaching the Temple Mount. Ultimately, the Police merely succeeded in causing a colossal traffic jam.


Q. It seems this unrest has alerted the entire international community. From Washington to Abu Dhabi protests are being delivered to Israel. Is there a way out?

A. First steps were taken on Sunday, May 9. The Israel Police and Shin Bet General Security Service attempted to restrict the provocative route of the Jerusalem Day flag march and were considering preventing Jews from ascending to the Temple Mount. The High Court yielded to Attorney General Mandelblit’s request to postpone its hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah homes. A number of influential Israelis proposed that the government itself take possession of the Sheikh Jarrah houses and rent them to their Palestinian occupants as a one-time ad hoc solution.

To prevent spread of Jerusalem-centered unrest, the IDF deployed additional battalions to the West Bank. Egyptian and Qatari good offices were enlisted to pass on conciliatory messages to Hamas in Gaza.


Q. Your bottom line?

A. As of midday Monday, no fatalities had been registered throughout the Ramadan unrest in and around Jerusalem. For this, alongside its bad decisions, the Israel Police deserve credit. Eventually this round of Israeli-Palestinian violence will, like its predecessors, end. But whether it is remembered as a full-fledged intifada or as a mere blip on the radar screen would only be known by week’s end.

Let us assume the current frantic coalition talks succeed, Israel enters a post-Netanyahu era, and Naftali Bennet heads a new government. Will that government succeed? It has left-right, liberal-conservative and secular-religious contradictions built into it. Netanyahu and the Likud will not rest from their current effort to dismantle the coalition by buying off its weaker members and mounting aggressive incitement campaigns and demonstrations. Netanyahu knows no other way.

Naftali Bennet may have proven adept at maneuvering between Netanyahu and Lapid over the past month, but he is completely untested as a prime minister. Raam, an Arab Islamist party led by a canny politician, Mansour Abbas, will make history and present Israeli politics with entirely new challenges. How Abbas, Bennet and Lapid navigate them could very soon determine the fate of this emerging coalition.

I began by expressing the hope that my prediction of a fifth round of elections would prove mistaken. Assuming this to be the case, we still confront an incredibly fragmented Israeli electorate and body politic. The Lapid-Bennet ‘unity’ formula for their coalition comprises consensus decisions, postponing controversial moves, and balancing a rightist coalition minority by appointing rightists to key ministerial posts.

No matter what transpires, the new coalition will certainly constitute a huge improvement over Netanyahu. But once the new ministers have congratulated themselves on this accomplishment, each of them except Defense Minister Gantz will enter unfamiliar ministerial territory under trying conditions. And Gantz can explain to them just how problematic a two-headed government with an alternate prime minister and consensual decisions (which often means no decisions) can be.

It is hard to believe that a fifth round of elections will be postponed for much more than a year.