There were a myriad individual triggers and turning points in the days and weeks leading up to the rapid spiral of violence now racking Jerusalem and surging outward, including heated clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount compound, rocket fire directed at Israeli cities from Hamas-controlled Gaza and retaliatory airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The fundamental reason the world’s holiest city is once again a flashpoint for conflict is because of a power vacuum in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But a more fundamental reason the world’s holiest city is once again a flashpoint for conflict is because of a power vacuum in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in which the former has been distracted during back-to-back-to-back-to-back inconclusive elections and the latter refuses to hold elections at all.
With Israeli and Palestinian politicians weak and focused on securing their own positions, extremists have been able to kick off another round of death, hatred and mutual recrimination. These paroxysms of violence tend to drive both Israelis and Palestinians to the right, weakening the possibilities for a peaceful resolution. But they coincidentally also have the effect of breathing life into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances for holding onto political power.
After five terms, it looked like Israel’s longest-serving premier was finally going to be brought down and replaced by a broad-based coalition led by a political moderate. Just last week, Netanyahu’s political opponents in Israel saw cause to celebrate as his time limit to form a governing coalition — and thus continue to serve as prime minister — expired.
The opportunity shifted to the second-place finisher in the March 23 elections, centrist Yair Lapid, who immediately started working toward a power-sharing arrangement with Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Yemina Party. Not large enough to form a coalition on their own, the parties set out on negotiations that would fold in a wide array of anti-Netanyahu factions on the right and left, including the historic inclusion of an Arab-Israeli party.
As of Monday morning, that coalition looked to be within reach and reports circulated that the new government could be sworn in by the end of the week. But as tensions heated up Monday, Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, postponed the critical meeting to seal the deal, with party representatives saying the negotiations would be suspended until the violence ended.
For two straight years, the day-to-day governance and fraught geopolitics facing Israel have often been overlooked as its leaders angle for political advantage during an endless election loop, concentrating their remaining energies on facing down the coronavirus pandemic.
Palestinian officials have been paralyzed in the opposite way; no elections have been held in the Palestinian Authority since 2006, giving President Mahmoud Abbas and his functionaries what amounts to lifetime appointments. Just last month, Abbas again announced the delay of elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The vacuum means radicals on either side can tilt the scales. Protests simmered over land disputes in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah for weeks with minimal intervention from an Israeli government that ignored the escalating protests while worrying about future coalition-forming. In the absence of a clear government response, far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir inflamed the situation by moving into the disputed neighborhood, positioning himself and his allies as the only politicians willing to stand up to the Arab protesters and assert a Jewish presence in the neighborhood.
On the other hand, Abbas’ greatest rival remains Hamas, the Islamist party that wrested control of the Gaza Strip away from him in 2007 and which has long been seen as his party’s main alternative in the occupied West Bank. Unable to challenge Abbas at the ballot box, it flexes its power through other means, including wielding and encouraging violence.
Hamas has been, if you will, the political sponsor of the uptick in violence on the Palestinian side. At the same time that tensions in Sheikh Jarrah were boiling up, Palestinian protesters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, incensed over Covid-based limitations on congregating during the holy month of Ramadan, stockpiled rocks and waved Hamas flags over the weekend, chanting “we are all Hamas” while facing off with Israeli security forces. With Hamas shut out of legislative elections, the social media-ready protests helped the opposition political party/terror group reinforce its appeal.
Hamas then took responsibility for Monday night’s rocket fire from Gaza, which targeted Israeli cities in the center of the country all the way to Jerusalem. In taking leadership of this latest round of protests, Hamas increases its prestige among Palestinians, especially those weary of Abbas’ delayed elections and failure to deliver diplomatic results.
But Hamas is not the only one that could be gaining from this conflagration. The current situation recalls the events that catapulted Netanyahu to power the first time and could yet save his political fortunes today.
In 1996, Netanyahu was an underdog candidate for his Likud Party, running against the legacy of recently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords. Although he entered the race polling behind Rabin’s successor in Labor, Shimon Peres, a wave of Palestinian terror attacks including Hamas-sponsored suicide bombings shook Israel in the three months leading up to the election. Campaigning on a motto of “peace with security,” Netanyahu positioned himself as the only candidate able to provide a strong Israeli response to terror.
The current uptick in violence now provides him with a similar opportunity. Increased Palestinian attacks directed at the Israeli homefront tend to shift Jewish Israeli voters rightward, as they seek a military response to quell the attacks. Netanyahu has garnered the nickname “Mr. Security” because of an image that he is the best leader to counter the Palestinian and Iranian threats.
Israel has been distracted during back-to-back-to-back-to-back inconclusive elections and the Palestinians refuses to hold elections at all.
With coalition talks on hold and the United Arab List boycotting negotiations until the violence stops, a door that seemed closed to Netanyahu appears to be reopening. While avowedly right-wing leaders such as Naftali Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar are personally angry enough at Netanyahu to refuse to join him in a coalition under peaceful conditions, the pressing need to restore quiet through a military response could drive them back into parlay with Netanyahu. And without Bennett, the centrist Lapid can’t cobble together a coalition.
If Lapid’s time limit for forming a government runs out, parliamentary rules could allow Netanyahu another shot at forming a government. Another possible outcome is that Israel finds itself, mid-conflict, on its way back to a fifth election.
And in the meantime? The vacuum left by the lack of political leadership will continue to apply its pressure like a black hole, sucking more and more of the remaining hope for a mediated resolution to this newest round of conflict into its lightless void.