Neither the savage attacks on Israelis over the past two weeks nor the sadistic celebrations of them in Palestinian quarters was anything new. For Israelis, the killings of their innocents took on a dreadful familiarity long ago, and the same is true of the scenes of Palestinians rejoicing in those deaths by honking horns and handing out candy.
In Jerusalem, bombs packed with nails and ball bearings so as to shred Israeli flesh to the maximum extent possible were detonated at two bus stops, murdering a 15-year-old boy and a 50-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and maiming over 20 others. A police official described the death tools as “two high quality, powerful devices (capable of) a high level of damage,” and a high level of damage is what they did. Just ask the victims’ families. This came just days after a Palestinian stabbed some eight Israelis in an industrial zone, killing three.
There has been a wave of these sorts of murders in recent months, and for Israelis they evoke the period from 2000 to 2005 when, encouraged by Palestinian leaders, bombings carried out on buses and in cafes killed almost 1,100 Israelis and wounded about 8,300 more. That’s the proportional equivalent of about 40,000 Americans killed and 320,000 wounded.
Guess how Americans would feel if that had happened on our streets. That’s exactly how Israelis feel.
Which leads to the lamentations greeting the return to power of right-wing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and, in particular, the hard right coalition the incoming Prime Minister is putting together to form a parliamentary majority. The critical problems with the lamentations are two-fold.
First, Netanyahu won in a free, fair and typically robust democratically-conducted election in a country that takes its democratic elections very seriously indeed. Second, those doing all of the lamenting have Palestinian attacks to thank for the choice made by the Israeli electorate, which above all wants to be kept safe and which lacks the confidence that their centrist parties, let alone their left-leaning ones, can do the job.
Israel’s relations with many of its Arab neighbors have openly warmed, and its ties to others have expanded, even if less openly. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains stuck in gridlock. On the West Bank, the supposedly governing Palestinian Authority is a hot mess. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas continues to hold Palestinians hostage. No two-state solution, and no fundamental progress at all, is possible until that siege lifts.
Stalemate, however, is no license for hubris, let alone arrogance. Some in Israel’s political right wing seem to think that whatever the Israeli government does or doesn’t do has little bearing on American popular support for their country. They are wrong.
During the period from 2009 to 2021, when Netanyahu last served as Prime Minister, support for Israel among Democratic constituencies – younger voters, women, voters of color and self-described progressives – hemorrhaged. The damage was serious, and yet some in Israel’s governing circles, as well as in certain segments of America’s pro-Israel communities, comforted themselves with denials or shrugs.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s new government will embrace the old hubris or learn from it. If Netanyahu uses his return to office to sidestep or override the judicial processes underway to determine whether he is guilty of crimes, the stain on the country he loves will be next to impossible to remove.
Settler violence against Palestinians is going to have to be prosecuted, not coddled. If fanatics and racists with whom Netanyahu has bonded for the purpose of forming his new government are permitted to subvert Israel’s democratic values, the price paid by Israel among Americans who care about those values will be very high.
Few countries face a greater assortment of profound challenges than Israel. Add to those challenges the need to reinforce the underpinnings of bipartisan support for America’s only genuine ally in the Middle East, a need which one hopes Benjamin Netanyahu and his new government take seriously.
Jeff Robbins is a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.