Israel's Extremists Confront Reality (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- January 30, 2023)


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.

Q. The Netanyahu government’s response to terrorist attacks in Jerusalem last weekend could have been much harsher. How do you explain this?

A. On the one hand, the government’s extreme ministers cannot blame the ‘usual suspects’. On the other, the Biden administration is breathing down Netanyahu’s neck. Add heavy public and especially economic pressures against the government’s drive to radically diminish Israel’s justice system, and the last thing Netanyahu wants to do now is start a war with the Palestinians.

Q. Explain.

A. Attacks Friday night and Saturday morning by East Jerusalem Palestinians against Jews outside a synagogue and on their way to prayer in Jerusalem killed seven and wounded several. These were lone wolf attacks by a 21-year old and a 13-year old. They appear to have been triggered by an earlier incident in Jenin in the northern West Bank in which Israeli forces killed nine members of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad group bent on attacking targets inside Israel, along with an innocent bystander.

The perpetrators of the Jerusalem attacks on Jews were from East Jerusalem (there are some 350,000 Palestinians in the Arab half of Israel’s “united, eternal” capital). They apparently acted alone--aside from the obvious: Hamas, PIJ and even Palestinian Authority incitement, the influence of which is impossible to measure accurately. Accordingly, there is no one for Israeli extremists to blame in the Palestinian Authority: no major terrorist networks that justify an IDF invasion. Hamas in Gaza has also been keeping a low profile and avoiding provocations beyond a few symbolic and harmless rockets fired in response to the Jenin incident.

This leaves Kahanist Minister of ‘National Security’ Itamar Ben Gvir with a dilemma: he bears ministerial responsibility for the East Jerusalem killings. He, who promised more security, more policing and tougher policies toward Arab offenders--who used to run to the site of every atrocity where angry demonstrators yelled “death to Arabs” and promise that he would “know how to deal with the Arabs”--is now being taken to task by his own followers and restrained by the government he serves in.

That explains one mitigating factor on the Netanyahu government’s response to this, the worst terrorist incident in years in terms of Israelis killed.

Q. Another set of restraints presumably involves American pressure.

A. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Monday this week. He was preceded by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, by CIA Director Bill Burns, by a major American-Israeli military exercise, “Juniper Oak”, that clearly tested joint attack tactics against Iran, and by an actual drone attack, attributed to Israel, against a weapons plant in Isfahan.

The message of the American visits, the joint exercise, and American rhetoric is increasingly clear: We thoroughly condemn the Jerusalem attacks, but at the same time we seek Israeli restraint on any and all aspects of the Palestinian issue that could constrain our ability to work with you against Iran and to work with you and Saudi Arabia to bring you closer together.

And while we do not wish to intervene in domestic Israeli affairs, we view Minister of Justice Yair Levin’s ‘judicial reform’ initiative as antithetical to democratic values. This too could constrain our capacity to work with you against Iran and to defend you at the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

And in case you Israelis did not notice, the Biden administration is escalating against Ukraine (Abrams tank supply) and actively working with you militarily against Russia’s ally Iran and Iranian proxies.

Q. You mentioned economic pressures regarding ‘judicial reform’.

A. Last week, widespread public protests against the Netanyahu-Levin scheme to relegate Israel’s judiciary to secondary status began to involve the economic/high tech sector. The governor of the Bank of Israel, Amir Yaron, returned from the annual Davos economic conclave with specific warnings from the global economic establishment that Israel’s credit rating would be downgraded if it went ahead with ‘judicial reform’ and related measures against government-funded broadcasting and the like. A host of leading Israeli economic luminaries and high-tech tycoons joined in, warning the government of economic damage. In a dramatic first step, a leading high-tech payroll platform, Papaya Global, pulled its funds out of the country.

Netanyahu responded with an anemic press conference in which, backed by a few glum ministers, he denied the economic argument against his reforms. Not a single major economist agreed to appear together with him. Given Netanyahu’s largely favorable economic track record, it stands to reason that if any factor persuades him to compromise on his anti-democratic reforms or delay them, this is it. Meanwhile, the economic pressure provided yet another reason for him to avoid escalating Israel’s response to the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.

Q. Does Netanyahu’s surprise visit last week to Jordan also connect up with his restrained attitude toward punishing the Palestinians and satisfying Israeli right-wing calls for vengeance?

A. The January 24 visit was truly a surprise. King Abdullah II of Jordan is known to disapprove of Netanyahu’s courting of far right-wingers who not only reject a two-state solution but dream of annexing all or part of the West Bank and forcing Palestinians to migrate to Jordan. The two leaders had not met for five years, and at one point in March 2021 a Netanyahu flight to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate his Israel-UAE normalization achievement had to be cancelled when the Hashemite Kingdom refused to allow his plane to transit its airspace.

Abdullah fears lest Netanyahu connive to transfer to the Saudis Jordan’s traditional role as patron of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. On the other hand, during the Bennett-Lapid ‘interregnum’ Abdullah agreed to a trilateral water-electricity deal with Israel and the UAE. No surprise, then, that it was apparently UAE leader Mohammed bin Zaid who arranged Netanyahu’s invitation to Amman. Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Galant, thus far a pillar of stability and good sense in Netanyahu’s extremist government, already visited Jordan two weeks ago.

Both Netanyahu and Abdullah, then, had compelling reasons to talk for a few hours. Ramadan begins on March 22, i.e., in less than two months. Both Israel and Jordan fear Palestinian unrest then, especially on the Temple Mount where Muslim religious authorities (still) answer to Jordan, and especially in view of the proclivity of Ben Gvir and fellow messianist-extremist minister Smotrich to engage in provocations in the Palestinian sphere.

Given Netanyahu’s real priorities--working with the US against Iran, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, and passing judicial ‘reforms’ that will help him evade his corruption trial--he needs quiet in the Palestinian sphere. Jordan can help. Netanyahu can reciprocate by blocking Ben Gvir’s extremist demands like expelling families of terrorists (to where, if not Jordan?). Netanyahu can lobby Washington for additional financial aid for Jordan. And he can possibly assist militarily in interdicting a major narcotics- and weapons-smuggling operation from southern Syria into and through Jordan to the Gulf (narcotics) and to the West Bank and the Israeli Arab sector (weapons).

So when Israelis were killed by Palestinians in Jerusalem scarcely days after Netanyahu’s Amman visit, he had yet another major reason for insisting on a restrained Israeli response.

Q. What other extreme measures are Netanyahu’s coalition partners demanding?

A. Here is a sampling of just two out of many, with commentary:

  1. Ben Gvir wants to impose closure on entire East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

The Shin Bet objects, citing previous neighborhood closures that backfired and produced yet more acts of terrorism.

  1. Ben Gvir wants to expand the gun-bearing Jewish population of Israel so that anyone and everyone will be ready to respond to a terrorist attack.

There are some 200,000 Israeli civilians with gun licenses, many of them West Bank settlers. Another 10,000 or so licenses are issued annually. Unlike in, say, the United States, the process of obtaining and renewing a gun license in Israel is rigorous, involving training at a licensed shooting range, a doctor’s okay, etc. The process takes many long months. If it is relaxed, Israelis will be shooting one another. If it is not relaxed, the gun-carrying population will not quickly expand.

Q. Bottom line?

A. We have not yet heard the last word from Ben Gvir and Smotrich. This coalition is rife with both extremists and extreme contradictions.

Nor have we yet even discussed the extreme measures Netanyahu promised the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties in his coalition, which include everything from burial via education to immigration to Israel.

Many Israelis critical of Netanyahu’s extreme measures and ministers are hoping for a proactive American role in restraining him. Perhaps. But liberal Israelis should rely first and foremost on their own efforts and energies.