Amid Violent Surge, Netanyahu Juggles Competing Goals. But for How Long?
When Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, gathered his cabinet on Sunday, he heard calls from ministers for a hard crackdown in response to a deadly sequence of Palestinian attacks on Israelis — home demolitions, deportations, death sentences.
When he met a day later with Antony J. Blinken, he listened politely as the American secretary of state called instead for calm and de-escalation after an outburst of violence, including the deadliest Israeli raid in years on Palestinians in the West Bank, 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 latest spell in power, this time at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
On the domestic stage, Mr. Netanyahu is being tugged toward the extremes by new partners who want him to annex the West Bank, exert more control over the most sensitive and contested holy site in Jerusalem and take harsher measures against Palestinians.
On the world stage, he is being nudged toward moderation by international partners — among them the United States and Israel’s Arab neighbors — who seek to curb rising 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 need to run at the same time.
At home, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government has no majority in Parliament without the involvement of the far-right: Other potential right-wing and centrist partners have refused to work with Mr. Netanyahu because of his decision to remain in politics despite standing trial for corruption.
Overseas, he needs U.S. and Arab good will for two key foreign policy goals — shoring up a regional alliance against Iran, and persuading Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s most influential country, to normalize ties with Israel after decades of estrangement.
“Netanyahu now does what he knows to do best — juggle all the balls in the air simultaneously,” said Mazal Mualem, the author of a new biography of the leader. “Master of political maneuvers, Netanyahu divides and conquers,” she added.
In previous governments, Mr. Netanyahu assembled coalitions with politicians to 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 Mr. Netanyahu, himself, as the closest thing to a moderating influence in an immoderate government, but a spiral of bloodshed and reprisals could sorely test his juggling skills.
A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence
- A Turbulent Moment: The recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has left seven Israelis and at least 14 Palestinians dead.
- Fueling Tensions: The roots of the violence predate Israel’s new far-right government, but analysts fear the administration’s ministers and goals will further inflame the situation.
- Blinken’s Visit: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s trip to Israel comes as the bloody episodes have U.S. officials concerned about a potential major escalation in the country.
In just over a month in office, he has already made several moves to rein in the most extreme positions and triangulate between competing priorities and ministers. He approved the demolition of an unauthorized West Bank settlement, dismissed a senior government minister the Israeli Supreme Court had judged unfit for office, and resisted a call to lock down parts of East Jerusalem.
“This is a government without a responsible grown-up,” said Anshel Pfeffer, another biographer of Mr. Netanyahu. “The only person who could be a responsible grown-up is Benjamin Netanyahu himself.”
“He wants to be prime minister despite being indicted, and no moderate will sit in that kind of coalition,” Mr. Pfeffer added.
To secure the support of Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extreme-right politician who until recently displayed a portrait of a mass killer in his home, Mr. Netanyahu appointed him minister in charge of the police.
To win over Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who wants to annex the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu made him the finance minister and gave him a powerful position in the defense ministry, heading the department that oversees construction and demolition in Israeli-administered parts of the territory.
Before entering office, Mr. Netanyahu signed off on coalition agreements that asserted the Jewish people’s exclusive right to both Israel and the occupied West Bank, and pledged to annex the West Bank. But he also left himself some wiggle room. The timing of annexation was left to Mr. Netanyahu himself, and the specifics of Mr. Smotrich’s role were left vague.
To Mr. Netanyahu’s critics, this dynamic has left him weak and unable to steer the government in the direction he wants. He gave away so many high-profile ministries to politicians from outside his own party, Likud, that he struggled to secure enough senior positions to award to his own party loyalists. Those who did receive key portfolios — like the foreign, defense and education ministries — had certain duties removed and given to others.
The best example was Yoav Gallant, a Likud member who was made defense minister — but only after key roles in the ministry were promised, at least on paper, to Mr. Smotrich.
When Mr. Smotrich pushed Mr. Gallant not to demolish a new, unauthorized Jewish settlement outpost in the northern West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu sided with Mr. Gallant. The outpost was knocked down by the army and its residents evicted.
Earlier, Mr. Netanyahu allowed Mr. Ben-Gvir to visit the Aqsa mosque compound, a deeply sensitive Jerusalem holy site that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who call it Temple Mount, for the temples built there in antiquity.
But after Mr. Ben-Gvir’s gesture inflamed international opinion — not least in neighboring Jordan, which is the site’s nominal custodian — Mr. Netanyahu hurried to Amman to meet the Jordanian king, Abdullah II, and try 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, and killed 10 people, including several gunmen and a 61-year-old female 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 Mr. Netanyahu’s ability to rein in his ministers, as well as its limits. In response to the Jerusalem attack, the far-right national security minister, Mr. Ben-Gvir, pushed fellow cabinet members to agree to a lockdown of a Palestinian part of the city.
The minister was eventually talked down, but the cabinet still agreed on measures that critics said were too heavy-handed and likely to prove counterproductive.
The moves included a decision to immediately seal attackers’ family homes, in addition to the longstanding Israeli practice of demolishing the houses at a later date — a move that critics see as a form of collective punishment.
“You are too weak to deal with the extremists in your government,” Yair Lapid, the centrist who preceded Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, wrote in a recent online post addressed to his successor.
Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that he remains in charge, and hasn’t been held to ransom.
“The main policy or the overriding policy of the government is determined by the Likud and frankly, by me,” he said in a podcast interview before taking office. During his earlier stints in office, opponents often leveled “these doom projections, but none of them materialized,” Mr. Netanyahu added.
Asked to comment for this article, an official in the prime minister’s office, who spoke anonymously to comply with protocol, said that Mr. Netanyahu was in full control of the situation and had a long, successful track record of managing different personalities in his cabinets.
Even if Mr. Netanyahu ultimately finds it difficult to control his cabinet, risking a domestic security crisis, some allies believe the international fallout would be less than his opponents imagine.
For some Arab leaders, solidarity with the Palestinians is now a lesser 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 establishing a Palestinian state.
Preventing a diplomatic rift 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 adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research group.
“The Middle East region has dramatically changed,” he added.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting.