Hard Questions, Tough Answers: 2021 Strategic Summary Part I: Israel (December 20, 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.

 In looking at the most notable strategic trends and events in and involving Israel over the past year, you presumably don’t mean issues not exclusive to Israel, like COVID and climate change. As for the Israel-specific ones, can you rank them in order of importance?

Indeed, not COVID or climate or even inflation, which seems to be widespread globally due to covid-induced government spending. And not regional issues, which we’ll deal with separately.

As for ranking: upon reflection, two lsrael-centered events stand out above all others in 2021. First, the removal from power of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his followers and the highly pluralistic political developments that followed. And second, the “slippery slope” nature of Operation Guardian of the Walls in mid-May.

The other key strategic dynamic of 2021 seems to center on violence: escalating Arab-Jewish violence, Arab-Arab violence, settler vigilante violence, and revelations about historical violence.

Start with the most important. How will history look at the two developments you focus on, Netanyahu’s removal and the May Israel-Hamas mini-war?

The political system’s success, after four fruitless election rounds, in removing Netanyahu from power may have saved the institution of democratic governance in Israel. Netanyahu ruled for too long and was too corrupt, both politically and personally. He succeeded in corrupting virtually an entire ruling political party, the Likud, which sadly still follows his lead. Had he remained in power, Netanyahu almost certainly would have appointed legal officials who would cancel his trial on multiple corruption charges.

What followed the removal of Netanyahu could be of equal strategic importance for Israeli governance. While Israel in 2021 remained essentially a Jewish polity dominated by a right-religious majority, the coalition that took office in June is the most pluralistic in the country’s history. For the first time, an Arab party--and an Islamist one at that--is a full-fledged member of government in Israel. Raam’s membership presages the beginning of the application of national governance on an egalitarian basis to Israel’s Arab minority--roughly one-fifth of the population.

Of course, these developments were and are dependent on a razor-thin majority of anti-Netanyahu parties. If political circumstances in 2022 overturn that majority, these achievements could yet prove short-lived.

And Guardian of the Walls? This was hardly Israel’s first violent confrontation with Gaza-based Hamas, nor was it the most destructive.

The May fighting was of unique strategic importance precisely because, as an instance of Arab-Jewish conflict on the Israeli-Palestinian front, it was not limited to Gaza. Nor was it confined to Gazan and West Bank Palestinians. Rather, Guardian of the Walls took place on multiple fronts: Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount), mixed-cities like Jaffa, Ramla, Lod and Akko (involving conflict between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel), the West Bank, Lebanon (Hamas fired rockets from there too), and even mass demonstrations in global capitals like London and on university campuses. Indeed, the fighting commenced not because of events in the Gaza Strip, but rather when Hamas laid claim to defending the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif mosques and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem against perceived Jewish incursions.

In other words, what happened in May constituted a significant new stage of descent down the slippery slope upon which Israel and the Palestinians are teetering toward the violent reality of a binational entity. Their increasingly civil war-like conflict attracts supporters regionally and globally.

Prior to last May, Israelis had not witnessed this kind of intercommunal violence since 1948. To be sure, this time it was limited in scope, both territorially and in time-span (roughly ten days). But as a portent of the direction of Jewish-Arab relations in the absence of a two-state solution, Guardian of the Walls is liable to be seen in retrospect as a significant inflection point.

A series of events last week seemed threateningly characteristic of the slippery slope. An ambush in the northern West Bank by Palestinian Islamic Jihad killed a settler, a yeshiva student returning from prayer in Homesh. This is an isolated settlement surrounded by Arab villages that was ostensibly evacuated by the Sharon government in 2005 but is today in reality the site of a defiant settler outpost and yeshiva. The settler’s funeral was accompanied by news of the establishment of yet another (technically illegal) outpost in his memory, and a settler demand to legalize the Homesh yeshiva as a “proud and Zionist response” to the killing.

The violence expanded. Arab homes near Homesh were set ablaze by angry religious settlers, the same sort of outpost dwellers who regularly attack their Arab neighbors and cut down their olive trees. Just days before, Minister of Public Security Omer Barlev had expressed open concern about growing settler vigilantism. It is the IDF and Israel Police who are supposed to deal with Palestinian expressions of anger against settlers. Not the settlers; that’s civil warfare.

Apropos, in Hebron a settler was stabbed last week by a 65-year old Arab woman. A few days earlier, in a kind of portent, a Jewish woman resident was stabbed by a 14-year old Palestinian girl in Sheikh Jarrah whose home is in danger of being taken over by Jews, with reluctant High Court backing. Sheikh Jarrah takes us back to the casus belli of May’s Guardian of the Walls.

All this and more--stabbings and arson attacks--were seen in recent weeks as the normal course of events among Israelis and Palestinians. No one argued that we were entering a new intifada. The Shin Bet with its sophisticated intercept technologies claims to be in control. The Hebrew newspapers continued to query why in the world a Palestinian Arab 14-year old in Jerusalem would want to attack her Jewish neighbors in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem.

So everything is under control in 2021, and no one seems to see the big picture of the slippery slope. It all goes back to the nearly 55-year-old occupation that no one talks about any more. Or does it? During 2021 the State Archives for the first time released troubling official documents detailing IDF atrocities against Arab civilians during the 1948 War of Independence. And far-right Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich told Arab Knesset members, “You’re here by mistake because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.” It turns out that Jews were not the only victims of atrocities back then. Our hands were not entirely clean. And they still aren’t.

Never mind. For the vast majority of Israeli Jews in 2021, Homesh is ‘part of Israel’, the veteran Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah are barely ‘guests’, and the 14-year-old stabber with her mother’s kitchen knife must be the victim of Palestinian incitement. Or she has emotional problems. Or simply was having a bad day . . .

Is this the place to say something about violence in general in 2021, particularly but not only between Arabs and Jews?

Needless to say, violence in Israel is not unique to 2021. Rather, it was during the course of this year that Israelis became acutely aware of the extent of violence within Arab communities, particularly in the center and north of the country, and the extent of lawlessness among Bedouin communities in the Negev. The year 2021 witnessed 125 murders of Arab citizens of Israel by Arab citizens of Israel, usually the overflow of gang wars. It emerged that Arab Israelis possess hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons.

Seemingly all of a sudden, we learned that Jews driving at night near Beersheva are being stoned by disgruntled local Bedouin. The IDF is setting up units to ensure that, in wartime, reinforcements traversing Arab villages on their way to the northern front will not be ambushed by militants among the Israeli Arab residents of those villages. Years of neglect of Israel’s Arab sector under the defective governance of Netanyahu-led coalitions were suddenly obvious.

And why did all this emerge in 2021? Because the violence was no longer confined within Arab communities. It was overflowing and endangering Jews as well. Not the best excuse, but at least 2021 marked a resolve to expand law and order throughout Israel.

There are two interesting footnotes to this discussion of violence in 2021. For one, as elsewhere in the world, the confinement and distress imposed by COVID-19 led to a general escalation of violence in Israeli society: in the home, in hospitals, in schools when they reopened.

Secondly, the violence within Arab society in Israel, and between Arabs and Jews in May, contrasted sharply with a very different dynamic. Overall, Arab citizens of Israel are integrating rapidly into the mainstream of society, particularly the medical and pharma professions but also the courts and universities and civil society NGOs. They are increasingly middle class and prosperous.

Like the unique presence of an Arab Islamist party in the governing coalition that took over from Netanyahu last June, this too is a thought-provoking contradiction in 2021 Israel.

Additional major strategic developments recorded in 2021?

They generally involved Israel’s regional and international relations: Iran, Arab neighbors, relations with the United States and the American Jewish community. We’ll look at them in a coming Q & A.