Amid Spasm of Violence, Israel’s Far-Right Government Raises Risk of Escalation

The new far-right government in Israel has been in power for only a month, but under it, Israelis and Palestinians have already experienced one of the most violent phases in their region, outside of full-scale war, in years.

Nine Palestinians were shot dead Thursday morning in the deadliest Israeli raid in the West Bank in at least half a decade. Then a Palestinian gunman killed seven people Friday night outside a synagogue in Jerusalem, the deadliest attack on civilians in the city since 2008. And on Saturday, an attacker who police say was 13 years old shot and wounded two Israelis near a settlement. in East Jerusalem.

These events were not exclusive to the management of this government. But analysts fear that the policies and leadership of the new Israeli administration, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, are likely to further aggravate the situation.

The new government is an alliance of settler activists, hardline nationalists and ultra-conservatives led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and its leaders seek to annex the West Bank, further soften the Israeli army’s rules of engagement and entrench Israeli control over a holy site in Jerusalem. . All of that has already fueled a rise in Palestinian anger and made it more difficult for the remaining moderate forces in the Israeli government to defuse tensions.

Under the previous government, “Israeli policy was designed to maintain the illusion of stability,” said Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli official and analyst at the Israel Policy Forum.

Now, Mr. Novik added: “That cover has been removed.”

In recent interviews, Netanyahu has frequently dismissed such arguments as alarmist, saying his Likud party would take it upon himself to maintain stability.

Military strategy is about “deciding on policies that could be quite inflammatory,” he said last month at a podcast interview. “I’m trying to avoid that,” she added.

To be sure, the government has also inherited unstable dynamics from previous administrations.

The shooting in Jerusalem drew comparisons to a wave of five Palestinian attacks that killed 19 Israelis and foreigners last spring, during the tenure of the previous Israeli government.

The incursion into the West Bank was simply the continuation of a 10-month Israeli military campaign into the territory that the previous government launched in response to that wave of violence last spring, and which resulted in the deaths of more than 170 Palestinians in 2022, the number highest annual toll in the West Bank for over a decade and a half. Thirty Israelis and foreigners were killed last year by Palestinians, the highest number since 2014.

The long-term roots of this cycle, including Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the establishment of a two-tier legal system for Israeli settlers and Palestinians; the failure of the peace negotiations, which stalled in 2014; and Palestinian rejection of Israel and violence against Israelis, also long predating any contemporary Israeli government.

However, the extremists in the current government were elected on promises that have already fueled the fires of Palestinian anger. And they have been emboldened, not cowed, by rising tensions.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new minister in charge of police, won a record number of seats in November’s general election after campaigning to crack down on Palestinians he views as a terrorist threat and allay fears exacerbated by the inter-ethnic riots between Arabs and Jews in 2021.

The attack on Jerusalem on Friday has already increased calls by his supporters to keep their promises.

“Itamar, take care of them, Itamar!” shouted a passerby, after Mr. Ben-Gvir arrived at the scene of the attack. “We chose you, Itamar.”

“The government must respond,” replied Mr. Ben-Gvir. “With God’s help, I hope that’s what happens.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir did not elaborate, but his background has made Palestinians particularly concerned about his next steps. In the 1990s, he was banned from serving in the Israeli army because security officials considered him too extreme. Until 2020, he displayed a large portrait in his home of a Jewish gunman who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

“There is an important change here,” he said. hani masri, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “We used to see this on the margins, not among ministers.”

“We are in a new stage,” he added.

The new Israeli government has already drawn increased attention to whether a two-state solution, the term for a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is not just unlikely, if not impossible. The government’s statement of guiding principles began with a direct affirmation of the exclusive right of the Jewish people to both Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Another coalition agreement promised to formally annex the West Bank the moment Netanyahu decided and legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements in the territory.

For now, Netanyahu has prevented some of his most hardline ministers from fully exercising their will in the West Bank.

This month, he ignored demands by Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right minister, to prevent the army from clearing an unauthorized Israeli settlement in the territory. But it is not clear how long he can continue to deny his coalition partner: he has promised to give Smotrich power over the military department that oversees construction and demolition in Israeli-administered parts of the territory.

Through both public and private interventions, the United States has also tried to avoid the more drastic goals of some ministers in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the West Bank, on Monday and Tuesday, in a long-planned visit.

But analysts doubt much can be achieved, given the high emotions in both Israel and the West Bank after the events of last week.

The visit is more likely to resemble an extended condolence call than a productive diplomatic mission, said Aaron D. Miller, a former US diplomat and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

“Blood is on both sides,” he added.

Internal divisions within Palestinian society and its leadership will also impede efforts to salvage the situation. The Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous body that has run most Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank since the 1990s, is deeply unpopular with ordinary Palestinians, many of whom accuse it of collaborating with Israel by coordinating with Palestinian forces. Israeli security.

Since the authority’s establishment, its police and intelligence officers have cooperated with their Israeli counterparts, sharing intelligence that officials say has helped thwart attacks, retreating to their headquarters during Israeli raids and, on occasion, arresting armed Palestinians considered a threat by Israel.

For supporters, the coordination is a confidence-building mechanism that helps stabilize relations with Israel and sets the stage for a Palestinian state. For critics, including militant groups like Hamas, it is an act of betrayal and acquiescence to Israel that brings little benefit to the Palestinians, let alone sovereignty.

After the raid on Thursday, the authority announced the suspension of security coordination. If fully enacted, the measure would cut off most contact between the Israeli and Palestinian security services, making it easier for both Palestinian armed groups and violent Israeli settlers to operate unimpeded.

The growing frustration and violence among Palestinian youth is also contributing to a combustible situation. The number of deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis increased in the past year. So did the level of Palestinian resistance to Israeli military incursions, which in turn led to more deadly shootings between Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli army in the heart of Palestinian cities.

All of this increases the likelihood of a conflagration and diminishes the attractiveness of cooperation with Israel between the Palestinian leadership and the security apparatus.

Analysts and diplomats briefed on the suspension decision believe that at least some level of cooperation with Israel will continue to be secret and could quickly be fully restored, just as it was in 2017 and 2020.

But the current context may make it difficult for the authority to change its position in the past, said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Palestinian political research group.

Tensions with the Israeli government, whose members have openly called for the authority’s collapse, are unlikely to subside fast enough to allow the authority to back down without losing face, Dalalsha said.

“There are no limits to how far this government can go,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.