Amid a new terror phase, marked by a surge over recent days in what might be described as Palestinian “suicide stabbings” — relentless attacks by lone terrorists, across Israel and in the West Bank — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a press conference Thursday night to try to reassure an increasingly worried public.
He didn’t announce a raft of new measures, but he and his security chiefs set out several central themes that served to underline that Israel is again on something akin to a war footing:
1. This is part of an endless battle against those who want to kill us: Israel has been fighting terrorism since “the start of the Zionist enterprise,” Netanyahu said early in his press conference. Fighting it, and beating it. Today we’re tackling “terrorists who have been incited and are filled with hatred.” And Israel, he promised, will prevail in this phase of the ongoing struggle too. (Half of the hundreds of Palestinians arrested as terror suspects in recent weeks are minors, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said a little later — hundreds of young minds incited to violence.)
2. I’m the best man for the job: Simply by bringing together a kind of war council — addressing the public along with two key ministers and two security chiefs — Netanyahu was underlining that this is, if not a war, another serious and likely protracted battle. He hadn’t convened this kind of public forum since last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. And the message he hammered home was that his “team” could be trusted to beat the terrorists. And that his political opponents — making their irresponsible declarations from right and left — could not.
3. Israelis are a brave, resilient people: Netanyahu took pains to praise the “acts of heroism” by soldiers, cops and “ordinary citizens” who have intervened to thwart and halt several attacks in recent days. It’s a lousy neighborhood, he acknowledged. “We live in the Middle East,” he noted dryly, “and the flames of extremism reach us too.” But he was “proud” to be part of a nation of such courage and determination.
4. Mahmoud Abbas is part of the problem, but could also be part of the solution: Hamas, Abbas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s own Islamic Movement have all been cynically “inciting” terrorism by disseminating the lie that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, the prime minister charged. He took pains to stress that this is not the case — in other words, that he has no intention of permitting Jewish prayer at the site, or widening Jewish access. In order to try to calm the situation at the mount, he pointed out, he has now even banned Knesset members — Jew and Muslim — from visiting. He was also careful not to place Abbas completely in the enemy camp. He hoped, he said, that he saw the beginning of a change in Abbas’s statements and actions in recent days, although he wasn’t sure. And he was as ready as ever, he insisted, to resume negotiations — without preconditions but also, obviously, without relinquishing key Israeli interests. He indicated, tellingly, that were the situation to spiral further out of control in the territories, the PA could find itself swept away by the wave of violent extremism.
5. This is not the same terror war as 15 years ago: Netanyahu and especially Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were determined to project that this is currently a less devastating incarnation of the terror war than the Second Intifada. Netanyahu made clear that he would not be sealing off the West Bank, as opposition leader Isaac Herzog had suggested earlier Thursday. Ya’alon claimed that “Israel has been on the offensive” in the West Bank ever since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when the infrastructure behind the onslaught of suicide bombers was smashed, and that today’s use of knives, stones and petrol bombs was a consequence of terrorists being unable to orchestrate attempts at wider killings. If necessary, the IDF would use “crushing” force, the defense minister said. But as things stood, what was needed was ongoing good intelligence, smaller-scale actions by the security forces, and a great deal of public awareness.
6. Israelis had better not take the law into their own hands: The acting police chief Bentzi Sau issued the starkest warning to Israelis not to start attacking Palestinians or Israeli Arabs in revenge. Several times in the past two days, Israeli civilians not only helped thwart stabbings, but also then protected the disarmed assailants from the wrath of other civilians until the police arrived.
7. Security takes precedence over settlements: It was “common sense,” said Netanyahu, for him not to risk alienating parts of the international community by announcing new settlement building, as many of his right-wing coalition colleagues have demanded. He was determined, he said, to maintain wide outside backing for measures that have included sending troops into PA-controlled cities and “sharpening” open fire orders. Nobody needed to teach him lessons about the value of settlements, he declared, but his prime obligation was to the security of Israel’s citizens. “Common sense” dictated the pragmatic course, he repeated. Common sense or not, this marked a departure from some past confrontations, when Netanyahu has responded to terror attacks by publicly approving new settlement homes.
8. A wider coalition, with pleasure: Asked about a larger government, perhaps including Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union, Netanyahu was all open arms. The terrorists don’t distinguish between left- and right-wing Israelis, and lots of the arguments that divide mainstream politicians are pointless, he asserted. He’s the man in charge, Netanyahu made abundantly clear, but “I want a wide coalition, and a unified people.”