Updated: Sep 13
By Nico Herrlett
Tensions are reaching unprecedented heights as Netanyahu’s new hard-line coalition passes the 100-day threshold. Fierce opposition to a proposed shake-up of the judiciary and mounting violence in the West Bank exacerbate deep-seated divisions in Israeli society. Clashes between authorities and Muslims prompted airstrikes by Palestinian militias from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Fears of a wider conflagration and deteriorating foreign relations cast a shadow over prospects of calming tensions.
© REUTERS/Corinna Kern
Escalating Security Threats
Alarm sirens erupted in West Galilee when a barrage of three dozen rockets entered Israeli territory from Southern Lebanon on 6 April. Video footage shows the smoke trails of Iron Dome Tamir missiles intercepting the largest airstrike since the 2006 Lebanon war.
This year’s concurrence of the Jewish Passover holiday and Ramadan was widely seen as recipe for disaster. The rocket salvo on Thursday followed a raid of the compounds of the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque where Israeli police authorities clashed with Muslim worshippers.
In a retaliatory move, missiles were also fired from the Gaza Strip. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the militant Islamist group Hamas, called the raid an “unprecedented violation that will not pass”. Just two days later, missiles were launched from Syria with one landing in the occupied Golan Heights.
Netanyahu’s New Government
The events on Temple Mount are another flare-up of violence in Israel following 100 days of escalating conflict and domestic unrest. In December, the Knesset inaugurated Netanyahu for his sixth term as Prime Minister, cementing his position at the helm of the most right-wing and religious cabinet in Israel’s 74-year history.
His political comeback was enabled by forming a coalition with ultraorthodox and nationalist parties that, until then, had operated at the periphery of Israeli politics. Key ministerial positions were given to far-right figures like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir; both of whom are known for their ideologically charged rhetoric and their party’s support for a de jure annexation of West Bank territory.
Among the key priorities of the new administration were an expansion of normalisation agreements to Saudi Arabia and the provision of a “stable government” that prioritises the security of citizens.
Furthermore, the coalition promised an acceleration of settlement construction in the West Bank, increased funding to Jewish institutions and far-reaching changes to the legal system.
In light of the hard-line positions of Netanyahu’s new government, critics expressed concern about controversial policies disrupting domestic security. An increasingly religious character of state institutions and aggressive settlement agendas were perceived to pose a risk of putting strain on regional relationships and alienating Western allies.
A major political crisis erupted in January when the coalition advanced a proposal for polarising changes to the judiciary. The contentious reform package would grant Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, authority to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority, and potentially adopt legislation that infringes upon Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
Further changes to the appointments of judges and limits to judicial reviews of laws constitute an unprecedented expansion of political control.
For years, pro-settler parties have attempted to curb the power of Israel’s widely authorised court system. Past supreme court decisions, such as the support of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2008, fostered deep animosity amongst the most conservative elements of Israeli politics.
Limiting the court’s power to strike down legislation is fundamental for advancements in the West Bank and the establishment of a more dominant Jewish character within state institutions.
Political Crisis and Violence in the West Bank
Growing concern over the curtailment of checks and balances to the legislative branch sparked nationwide anti-government protests. Attacks on the independence of Israel’s judiciary are seen by many as signs of an erosion of Israel’s democratic tradition.
The dismissal of Minister Yoav Galant, after security concerns prompted him to call for a halt of legislative action, added fuel to the fire. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities across Israel. The country’s biggest labour union announced a general strike and reservists threatened to disobey orders to report for duty.
In an attempt to defuse the escalating security crisis, Netanyahu reversed the decision to sack his defence minister and the judicial reforms were delayed until May. As a compromise for freezing the legislation, the cabinet approved Ben-Gvir’s blueprint for a new National Guard, which would focus solely on tackling domestic upheaval and civil unrest.
Critics fear a crackdown on oppositional forces and are alarmed about the consequences of the treatment for Palestinians.
Even before the clashes on Temple Mount, violence was surging in the West Bank. 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since the Second Intifada. The gradual disintegration of the Palestinian Authority and its image as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation amongst Palestinians has led to the emergence of radical militias that further destabilise the region.
Finance Minister Smotrich is expected to advance settlement construction under his credo of a desired “de-facto assertion of sovereignty”. Much to the vehement opposition of the Islamic world, a one-state reality appears to materialise in Israel.
The hard-line trajectory of the political echelon in Israel further constitutes a massive hazard to the health of regional relationships. A core achievement of Netanyahu’s political career was the successful normalisation of diplomatic relations with the Arab Gulf States in the infamous Abraham Accords, negotiated in 2020.
However, provocative rhetoric by Smotrich recently prompted 6 member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council to send a letter of condemnation to Washington. Numerous state visits of government officials were postponed in response to West Bank policies.
The increasing use of condemnations is indicative of how Israel’s right-wing agenda can drive a wedge between Israel and Arab nations across the Middle East, seriously harming normalisation efforts.
Recent high-level diplomatic rapprochements between Teheran and Riyadh give Israel a palpable sense of unease. Israel’s plan to strengthen diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia may face major obstacles if tensions keep rising.
While internal divisions progressively destabilise Israeli society and diplomatic ties are strained, military pressures seem to contribute to a further escalation of threats to national security.
Caught in a crossfire between airstrikes from Gaza, Lebanon and most recently Syria, concern rises about the possibility of a wider military conflict.
While the rockets fired from Gaza bear striking resemblance to the events preceding the eleven-day war in 2021, the unusually heavy strikes launched from Southern Lebanon raise questions about the involvement of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah.
Against the backdrop of a decade-long shadow war between Teheran and Israel, the two countries have been involved in a long series of tit-for-tat strikes across the region.
Most notably, Iran funded Hezbollah in the 2006 war against Israel and has been supplying resources to its extensive network of anti-Israel proxies in neighbouring countries and the West Bank for years.
There has been a trend of growing cooperation between Hamas and the Iran-backed militia. Although recent airstrikes are attributed to a Lebanese faction of the Palestinian organisation, experts question to what extent Iran might be trying to take advantage of ongoing political turmoil.
In a country more divided than ever, heightened military pressure adds yet another layer of insecurity as Israel stumbles across the hundred-day mark of its 37th government.
With political tensions seemingly boiling over, all eyes are on Netanyahu’s leadership and its response to adversity in weeks and months to come. Much appears to be at stake as the country slips from one crisis to the next.
A calming of tensions is difficult to conceive if the government decides to hold on to its uncompromising trajectory.
Sources: Al Jazeera, AP News, Carnegie Europe, Times of Israel, Wall Street Journal
Written by Nico Herrlett