The government and opposition are united in calling for concrete measures to immediately stem the terrorism raging in Israel’s streets, but deeply divided about the root cause for the ongoing violence and ways to tackle it over the long term.
Amid plummeting approval ratings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet have been exclusively focusing on tactical steps — more security forces on the streets and harsher penalties for terrorists — rather than drastically changing the way they approach the Palestinian problem.
The security cabinet, during a long late-night session Tuesday, approved several operational initiatives: It ordered the IDF to reinforce the police, it authorized the police to impose “closures” around parts of East Jerusalem, and asked for work to be done to complete the West Bank security fence. In addition, it decided to confiscate the property of terrorists, to demolish their homes and revoke residency rights, and to withhold the bodies of terrorists killed during their attacks.
While there is debate over the legality of some of those measures, opposition leader Isaac Herzog gave Netanyahu free hand to do what he deems necessary.
“We will back every security measure that you initiate and lead, without hesitation, in order to immediately return security to the country and its citizens,” Herzog told Netanyahu Tuesday in the Knesset. “We will never serve as an opposition to the nation of Israel and its security.”
However, Herzog and Netanyahu — and, in a wider sense, the government and the opposition — fundamentally disagree on the source of the current crisis and on how terrorism can be defeated permanently.
The only way forward is to separate from the Palestinians for good, Herzog said during the opening of the Knesset’s winter session Monday. Netanyahu’s policy of clinging to the status quo will lead to a binational state, which would be “hell” for its Jewish minority, he charged.
“You believe in managing the conflict. And I believe in an active, large and dramatic diplomatic action that must change the reality,” the opposition leader declared. Terror is a result of the frustration and hopelessness young Palestinians feel as a result of Netanyahu’s policies, he said. Give the Palestinians the prospect of independence and sovereignty and they will no longer feel the need to attack Israelis, he argued.
Netanyahu, by contrast, doesn’t consider that terror is a direct reaction to Israeli policies. Rather, he believes that it stems from the Palestinian denial of the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty in the Holy Land, and that therefore the only remedy against terrorism is perseverance. The Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people “was and is the root of the conflict,” he said Monday.
While the opposition argues that only the resumption — and eventual successful conclusion — of peace talks with the Palestinians will bring Israel long-lasting quiet, the government believes that if it fights terrorists effectively enough, the status quo can continue endlessly.
Israel will “settle the score” with the terrorists and their helpers, Netanyahu told the Knesset between cabinet sessions Tuesday. “Not only will we revoke rights from them; we will exact the full price,” he vowed. “I am positive that the actions that we will take will lead the other side to the realization that terror doesn’t pay. Israel is strong and will remain here forever.”
The US administration clearly sides with the opposition in this ideological debate. While condemning the attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appeared to blame the Israeli government’s actions in the West Bank for the current violence. “There’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years,” Kerry said during an event at Harvard University, “and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.”
Kerry vowed that the administration is “going to stay engaged” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, echoing much of the international community’s mantra that only renewed peace talks and a final-status agreement can stop the violence.
Netanyahu most emphatically does not view the failure to renew negotiations as the cause for the current violence. Indeed, many in his government believe that previous territorial concessions actually led to the current situation, and that if Israel were to evacuate more territory to make room for a Palestinian state, things would become even worse.
“This vicious terrorism did not start today. It has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its beginning,” the prime minister said during a press conference Thursday. “We have always known how to defeat the rioters and build up our country and so it will be now. The terrorists and the extremists behind them will achieve nothing. We will rebuff them and we will defeat them.”
Worrying approval ratings
While many Israelis are generally sympathetic to Netanyahu’s views on the Palestinian question, they are unhappy with the way he’s tackled the current terror wave.
Seventy-three percent of respondents to a survey published Saturday were either “dissatisfied” (35%) or “very dissatisfied” (38%) with Netanyahu’s leadership during the last few days of terror. Only 15% saw him as the Israeli politician best able to curb the attacks, behind his right-wing rivals Avigdor Liberman (22%) and Naftali Bennett (17%).
Netanyahu would be wise to be worried. During last year’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, his approval rating deteriorated drastically as the 50-day war dragged on, but during its early stages he enjoyed broad public support.
On July 23, 2014, shortly after Israel started sending ground troops into Gaza, 82% approved of the prime minister, according to a Channel 2 poll at the time. More than a month later, shortly before the war ended, his approval rating had plummeted to 38%. “The eternal people isn’t afraid of a long journey,” Israeli politicians like to say. But the Israeli public also wants wars and terror waves to end quickly.
Netanyahu’s poor ratings do not imply that the alternative offered by Herzog and the opposition is popular. In Saturday’s poll, only 5% of respondents thought that Herzog was the Israeli leader best equipped to beat the current terror wave. In calling for negotiations and a final-status agreement, he might offer a long-term strategy for dealing with the Palestinian questions. But the public does not seem to trust him with putting an end to terror in the short term.