As a third-term prime minister who has fashioned himself as the indispensable man to protect Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu is facing perhaps the greatest threat of his long political career.
The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June, followed by the revenge killing of a Palestinian teen, the Gaza war, rising tensions over access to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound, and five terrorist attacks in the past month alone mark the worst tensions in a decade.
This summer was the first time Mr. Netanyahu presided over a war, and he is now facing the prospect of steering Israel through what some are calling the beginnings of a third intifada. Nationalist violence has already claimed three lives this week, with two Israelis stabbed to death on Monday and a Palestinian demonstrator shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank Tuesday.
With the fatal police shooting of a young Arab man in northern Israel Friday sparking weekend protests, the violence now threatens to spread from Jerusalem to Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority.
Many accuse Netanyahu of inflaming the situation with his tough rhetoric – including his call Monday for Israeli Arab protesters to move to the West Bank or Gaza – but he may be listening more closely to right-wing leaders aiming to outflank him.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett have railed against him for what they say is his cowardly approach, and on Monday a second challenger from the far right of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Danny Danon, threw his hat in the ring to challenge his leadership in January primaries.
“He’s definitely feeling [pressure] within the party, but he’s also feeling it tremendously … from Bennett,” says Galia Golan, professor emerita at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and former head of its political science department. “I’m sure that that’s the reason for the nature of these very strong reactions.”
Mr. Bennett, a hi-tech entrepreneur and former Israeli settler leader who has led his Jewish Home party’s meteoric rise to No. 2 in the polls behind Likud, recently castigated Netanyahu’s government for “hid[ing] behind concrete stands.”
“Since when have we become a country obsessed with a defensive doctrine?” he asked. “Concrete blocks, fences, and iron domes, security guards in every corner, a shelter for every child.”
Just campaign rhetoric?
With elections expected for early 2015, and the Likud primaries just announced for Jan. 6, some see Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric as geared at securing a fourth term as prime minister. His call for Israeli Arabs to leave the country came at the Likud’s weekly meeting Monday.
But fellow Likudnik and former Deputy Defense Minister Danon, whom Netanyahu fired this summer for criticizing Israel’s response to Hamas’s attacks in the Gaza war as humiliating, said the rhetoric was not genuine.
“The prime minister has been making right-wing noises in recent days. Friends, it’s a fake. It’s a quest for votes, not for a direction,” said Danon, who announced he would challenge Netanyahu’s leadership in the January primaries and accused Netanyahu of allowing the country to be dragged into a war of attrition with terrorists.
"I think ... we saw in the operation in Gaza in the summer that we haven’t concluded the fight against Hamas," he told The Christian Science Monitor. "And today the fight is not in Gaza, it is in our streets. I think we should have finished the job in Gaza."
To be sure, Netanyahu has never been particularly eager to make conciliatory gestures across the Jewish-Arab divide, and he was blamed for inflaming tensions well before the primaries were announced.
Different example set by President Rivlin
While Netanyahu characterizes his policy as dictated by the need to protect Israeli security, the example of Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, demonstrates that that doesn’t have to preclude reaching out to the country’s Arab population.
Mr. Rivlin, who is seen as being to the right of Netanyahu and opposes a Palestinian state, has made very strong statements against the recent violence. But he has also caught the attention of many in Israel in the first few months of his presidency with his embrace of the country’s Arab minority.
The son of an Arabic-speaking father who translated the Quran, and an Arabic speaker himself, he recently attended an annual memorial ceremony in the Israeli Arab town of Kfar Kassem, where Israeli border police shot and killed 49 Arab Israelis in 1956. While he stopped short of apologizing for the massacre, his condemnation of the attack, and his emphasis on coexistence, won him respect from many quarters.
“We are destined to live side by side and we share the same fate,” he said, and called on Israel to draw lessons from those dark days to resolve the tensions rocking Jerusalem.
As those tensions ripple out beyond Jerusalem, his words underscore the imperative for both security and coexistence.
Speak to Arabs 'as equal citizens'
“For now, the events in the Arab population are under control, but it seems that if the prime minister does not take responsibility and talk to Arab residents as equal citizens, then the atmosphere will not calm down,” an unnamed official from the Israeli Arab municipality of Sakhnin told Israel’s Channel 2 television Monday.
“Anybody who wants to take advantage of this situation and others as a springboard for the upcoming elections – it will not come at the expense of the Arab sector,” the official said.
And though Netanyahu faces growing political pressure as elections approach, he perhaps above all is eager for the tensions to subside.
“No one would be happier than him if it all cools down,” says political scientist Abraham Diskin.