Amid Violent Surge, Netanyahu Juggles Competing Goals. But for How Long?

As Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, assembled his cabinet on Sunday, he heard calls from the ministers for a harsh crackdown in response to a deadly sequence of Palestinian attacks on Israelis: home demolitions, deportations, death sentences.

When he met Antony J. Blinken a day later, he listened politely as the US secretary of state called for calm and détente following an outbreak of violence, including the deadliest Israeli attack on Palestinians in the West Bank in years, followed by the deadliest Palestinian attack in years against Israelis in Jerusalem.

This is the disorienting waltz that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister finds himself dancing in his final spell in power, this time at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Domestically, Netanyahu is being pushed to extremes by new partners who want him to annex the West Bank, exert more control over the most sensitive and disputed holy site of Jerusalem and crack down on the Palestinians.

On the world stage, international partners including the United States and Israel’s Arab neighbors are pushing it toward restraint, seeking to curb the escalating violence in Israel and the West Bank before it escalates into an explosion.

In short, his goal is to perform two different acts in two different theaters. The challenge is that both performances must be executed at the same time.

At home, Netanyahu’s coalition government does not have a majority in parliament without the participation of the far right: other potential partners from the center and right have refused to work with Netanyahu due to his decision to remain in politics despite being tried for corruption.

Abroad, he needs the goodwill of the United States and Arab countries for two key foreign policy goals: shoring up a regional alliance against Iran and persuading Saudi Arabia, the world’s most influential Arab country, to normalize ties with Israel. after decades of estrangement.

“Netanyahu is now doing what he does best: juggling all the balls in the air simultaneously,” said Mazal Mualem, author of a new biography of the leader. “Master of political maneuvering, Netanyahu divides and conquers,” he added.

In previous governments, Netanyahu formed coalitions with politicians from both his left and right, using one to moderate the other. This time, however, there is no one to his left in the coalition, and those to his right are more powerful, numerous, and extreme than in his previous governments.

That leaves Netanyahu himself as the closest thing to a moderating influence in an immoderate government, but a spiral of bloodshed and retaliation could test his juggling skills.

In little more than a month in office, he has already made several moves to control the most extreme positions and triangulate between competing priorities and ministers. He has approved the demolition of an unauthorized West Bank settlement, fired a top government minister who Israel’s Supreme Court had declared unfit for office and resisted a call to blockade parts of East Jerusalem.

“This is a government without a responsible adult,” said Anshel Pfeffer, another Netanyahu biographer. “The only person who could be a responsible adult is Benjamin Netanyahu himself.”

“He wants to be prime minister despite being impeached and no moderate will sit in that kind of coalition,” Pfeffer added.

To secure the support of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who until recently displayed a portrait of a mass murderer in his home, Netanyahu appointed him minister in charge of police.

To win over Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the settlers who wants to annex the West Bank, Netanyahu appointed him finance minister and gave him a powerful position in the defense ministry, heading the department that oversees construction and demolition in parts of Israel administered by Israel. the territory.

Before taking office, Mr. Netanyahu signed coalition agreements affirming the exclusive right of the Jewish people to both Israel and the occupied West Bank, and pledged to annex the West Bank. But there was also some leeway left. The timing of annexation was left in the hands of Netanyahu himself, with the details of Smotrich’s role left vague.

For Netanyahu’s critics, this dynamic has left him weak and unable to lead the government in the direction he wants. He handed over so many high-profile ministries to politicians outside his own party, the Likud, that he struggled to secure enough senior posts to award to his own party loyalists. Those given key portfolios, such as the foreign affairs, defense and education ministries, had certain duties taken away and given to others.

The best example was Yoav Gallant, a Likud member who was appointed defense minister, but only after key roles in the ministry were promised, at least on paper, to Smotrich.

When Smotrich pressured Gallant not to demolish a new unauthorized Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank, Netanyahu sided with Gallant. The outpost was pulled down by the army and its residents evicted.

Earlier, Netanyahu allowed Ben-Gvir to visit the compound of the Aqsa Mosque, a deeply sensitive Jerusalem holy site that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount, for the temples built there in ancient times.

But after Ben-Gvir’s gesture inflamed international opinion, especially in neighboring Jordan, which is the nominal custodian of the site, Netanyahu rushed to Amman to meet Jordanian King Abdullah II and discuss to calm tensions.

On Thursday, Israeli security forces raided the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in what they described as an operation to capture terrorists, killing 10 people, including several gunmen and a 61-year-old bystander. The next day, a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem, the deadliest attack in the city in 15 years.

The aftermath of that spasm of violence highlighted both Netanyahu’s ability to control his ministers and his limits. In response to the Jerusalem attack, the far-right national security minister, Mr. Ben-Gvir, pressured cabinet members to agree to the closure of a Palestinian part of the city.

The minister was eventually discussed, but the cabinet still went along with the moves that critics said were too harsh and likely to backfire.

The moves included a decision to immediately seal off the homes of the attackers’ families, as well as the longstanding Israeli practice of demolishing homes at a later date, a move critics see as a form of collective punishment.

“You are too weak to deal with the extremists in your government,” said Yair Lapid, the centrist who preceded Netanyahu as prime minister. wrote in a recent online post addressed to his successor.

Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that he remains in charge and has not been held for ransom.

“The main policy or the primary policy of the government is determined by the Likud and, frankly, by me,” he said in a podcast interview before taking office. During his previous terms in office, opponents often leveled “these catastrophic projections, but none of them materialized,” Netanyahu added.

Asked to comment for this article, an official in the prime minister’s office, speaking anonymously to comply with protocol, said Netanyahu was in full control of the situation and had a long and successful track record in managing of different personalities in their cabinets. .

Even if Netanyahu ultimately finds it difficult to control his cabinet, risking an internal security crisis, some allies believe the international fallout would be less than their opponents imagine.

For some Arab leaders, solidarity with the Palestinians is now a lower priority than strengthening military, economic and technological ties with Israel. Three Arab countries formalized relations with Israel in 2020, in a process that highlighted how, in certain Arab capitals, shared fears of a nuclear Iran now take precedence over the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Preventing a diplomatic break between Israel and its Arab partners, or even building ties with Saudi Arabia, is “probably a bit easier today than it was five years ago,” said Dore Gold, a former Netanyahu adviser and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. , a research group.

“The Middle East region has changed dramatically,” he added.

Myra Noveck contributed to this reporting.