The replacement of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s “government of change” with the incoming far-right government led by Binyamin Netanyahu makes for the creation of an easy contrast. The fierce enmity between the members of the Netanyahu bloc and the members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, along with the rhetorical outrage displayed by each toward the other, will magnify the tendency that political opponents generally have to blame everything that goes wrong on the other side. The new Netanyahu government will claim that it must deal with the legacy of negligence and poor policies of the Bennett-Lapid government, while the new opposition will insist that the halcyon days that existed under its tenure were quickly shattered by the irresponsibility and extremism of the Netanyahu government.
This is going to be particularly acute when it comes to security issues related to the West Bank. Many—myself included—anticipate that the policies already floated by the prospective government, from a massive expansion of Israel’s presence in Area C and shifts in the West Bank’s status to looser rules of engagement for dealing with Palestinians who confront soldiers and police, will lead the situation beyond the Green Line to spiral out of control. If this happens, the opposition will pin all of the blame on Netanyahu and his enabling of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s basket of zealously excessive and flagrantly confrontational proposals. The new government will say that it inherited a mess from its predecessors, who allowed terrorism and extremism to go unchecked and did nothing to restore deterrence while violence against Israelis exploded under its tenure, and that whatever happens going forward is unrelated to whatever new policies are implemented.
As with many things in life, the simplest answer is not the best or most accurate. The polarizing nature of everything related to Israel, the polarizing nature of how the two sides and their supporters view each other, and the always-polarizing combination of Israeli political extremism and Palestinian violence will make the efforts to shape the narrative going forward even more virulent than usual. Despite the inevitable strategy that will be adopted of pinning complete responsibility on the other side, it is important to review where things stand now and look ahead to where things may stand in a few months.
2022 has been the deadliest year for both Israelis and Palestinians in a long time. Over 30 Israelis and over 150 Palestinians have been killed, the IDF is now conducting upwards of 600 monthly raids into Palestinian cities in Area A, and violence is spiking when measured by shootings, attacks, and attempted attacks that were thwarted. The Palestinian Authority has either lost control or had its control gravely eroded in the northern West Bank, and independent militias outside the confines of Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad are now operating in Jenin and Nablus in larger numbers. In addition, the IDF has come under pressure due to high-profile killings of Palestinian civilians during military operations, with Shireen Abu Akleh the most prominent and 16-year-old Jana Zakarna this past Sunday the latest. The Shin Bet and IDF intelligence give routine briefings expressing alarm at how close the West Bank is to the boiling point, and there is consensus among Israeli security officials that this is the closest things have come to a third intifada since the end of the second one nearly two decades ago.
This has all taken place under the Bennett-Lapid government, which embarked on a program of conflict mitigation through economic measures such as increased West Bank work permits, floating advances on tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, and the fulfillment of long-standing pledges such as 3G for Palestinian telecom networks and opening up the Allenby Bridge crossing 24 hours a day. Judged by the security situation, the effort to ease conditions for Palestinians has not borne much fruit in terms of creating more quiet and stability in the West Bank. And in other ways, the outgoing government actively made things worse by increasing pressure on Palestinians through a more visible and stepped-up IDF presence in Area A, by all accounts arresting many known terrorists but also providing incentives and opportunities for young Palestinians previously unaffiliated with terror groups to attack the omnipresent IDF soldiers who represent the occupation. The outgoing government also did little to give the PA any sort of political boost and create credibility for a non-violent approach rather than an armed resistance approach, either shunning Abbas or making it clear when meeting with him that only security issues—and absolutely no political issues—were discussed. And some of this is out of any Israeli government’s hands given trends in Palestinian politics and society. But Netanyahu and his partners are not exactly inheriting an idyllic situation to mess up. When the incoming government complains about inheriting a messy situation in the West Bank, it will not be wrong, and it will be difficult for the opposition to credibly argue that it was solely Smotrich and Ben Gvir who blew things up.
Despite the fact that the West Bank sitting on a knife’s edge is not new, the situation can still get much worse. Judging by everything the members of the incoming coalition have said, the coalition agreements that have been reached, and the increasingly maximalist demands being made by Netanyahu’s chosen partners, the West Bank is about to be turned into an unprecedented pressure cooker. Legalizing illegal outposts, implementing simultaneous settlement construction and Palestinian demolition sprees as part of a war over Area C, loosening rules of engagement that guarantee more Palestinian deaths and the burning anger that they cause, and embracing the worldview encapsulated in the words of Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel last week that “if it is one Israeli mother crying, or a thousand Palestinian mothers crying, then a thousand Palestinian mothers will cry,” will ramp things up to a level that make the violence of this past year seem quaint.
Despite the security situation in the West Bank having quickly deteriorated, the violence is still confined to younger Palestinians operating in a relatively disorganized fashion, and the PA and the PA Security Forces are still acting as a check on things spiraling out of control. Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and the cadre of Likud annexationists seem to believe that nothing they want to do will alter this equation. They are confident that the PA will never collapse or dissolve, that the IDF would be able to routinely handle things if the PA does collapse or dissolve without disruption to the rest of its responsibilities, and that the majority of Palestinians will take all of this lying down or can be bludgeoned into submission, despite this being more of a wishful dream than analysis backed by available evidence. If they turn out to be wrong, they will have loosed a genie from a bottle that they have no way of controlling. When the new opposition points out that the incoming government has acted irresponsibly and sacrificed Israeli security for an extreme ideological Greater Land of Israel agenda should these moves come to pass, it will not be wrong, and it will be difficult for the government to credibly argue that they had no role in turning a nightmare into reality.
The 18 months that the outgoing government has been in power have not been ones of peace and quiet. That does not negate the fact that the escalating violence seems to be out of the ordinary because Israel has enjoyed more than 15 years of relative stability in the West Bank, not coincidentally while Abbas has been at the helm of the PA. As compared to what occurred in the first years of this century, and compared to what the new government might unleash, 2022 may look in hindsight like a year of relative calm. Keep all of this in mind as the new government takes power and we watch what unfolds next, since it is true that the outgoing coalition presided over a time of increasing unrest, and it is also true that the incoming coalition should be careful what it wishes for.