With the world focused on the din and death of the fighting in Gaza, Israeli right-wing extremists are using that war to distract attention away from their violence, vandalism, and harassment to tighten their grip on the West Bank and to drive out Palestinians.
At the same time, Israeli security forces have stepped up their anti-terror raids since the October 7 Hamas pogrom. An estimated 150 Palestinians, including an unknown number of suspected Hamas terrorists, have been killed in the West Bank over the last month and over 2,000 injured as violence has increased on both sides.
But it’s about more than rooting out terrorists.
Israel's other Palestinian war: Settlers and the West Bank
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced the purchase of as many as 24,000 US-made M-16 assault rifles to arm settlers. After some in Congress objected, the Netanyahu government assured Washington that these would only go to first responders and not to settler groups.
It is hard to take such assurances seriously when it involves a notorious senior minister in the Israeli government. Ben-Gvir, who has been handing out rifles to civilians, has a long history of anti-Arab incitement and support for settler extremists and was rejected by the IDF for military service because he was too extreme.
Netanyahu has legitimized the extremists of the once-shunned parties, Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionist Party, by giving their leaders top government posts. They hold the balance of power in his coalition – if they pull out, he’s out.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, wants to create dead zones surrounding Jewish settlements in the West Bank for “preventing the entrance of Palestinians.”
Netanyahu, frightened of his extremist partners, didn’t have the courage to fire Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu when, in response to a question, he voiced support for nuking Gaza; he merely suspended him from cabinet meetings.
Violent settler vigilantes – terrorists – not only have powerful support inside the highest echelons of the government but in the army as well.
US President Joe Biden has demanded settlers be “held accountable” for their violence, likening their attacks on Palestinians and the West Bank to “pouring gasoline on fire.”
Palestinians who’ve been attacked by these marauders often report that when the army was called for help, soldiers too often simply stopped by and watched or even took part. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted that in one incident “soldiers and settlers were accused of binding, stripping, beating, and urinating on three Palestinians, and zip-typing and stealing the phones of Israeli (anti-occupation) activists.”
Nearly half of these incidents involved “Israeli forces accompanying or actively supporting Israeli settlers while carrying out the attacks,” The New York Times reported, citing United Nations officials.
PRESIDENT BIDEN and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been trying to talk to Netanyahu and his government about plans for after the war, but their concerns have been shrugged off. No doubt because the administration wants to resume peace negotiations in pursuit of a two-state solution, and that is anathema to Netanyahu. In fact, that may be what got him into today’s war.
Over the years, Netanyahu has bolstered Hamas – notwithstanding occasional clashes – as a rival to the more moderate and secular Palestinian Authority and Fatah. Unlike several of his predecessors who viewed PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace, Netanyahu considered him a threat to his own power and his strident opposition to Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu explained his divide-and-conquer strategy at a Likud meeting in 2019. “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support the delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
His message was if Palestinians can’t make peace with each other, how can they make peace with us? And he wanted to make sure they couldn’t.
It was that mindset that many of Netanyahu’s critics contend led him to ignore warnings of heightened threats from Hamas.
Netanyahu is weak and preoccupied with his own survival and finding scapegoats for his multiple failures. He seems unable or unwilling to control his ministers who support and encourage the settler vigilantes. Like Donald Trump (the parallels keep popping up), he is unwilling to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong and quick to blame everyone else. He accused the military and domestic intelligence agencies of the Gaza intelligence failure (they quickly took responsibility) and not warning him (they tried but he wouldn’t listen).
He even tried to blame the reservists who went on strike to protest his judicial coup, but that blew up in his face and he was forced to apologize. The reservists had quickly showed up for duty, which is more than can be said for Netanyahu’s favorite son, Yair, who is sitting the war out on a Florida beach.
The prime minister is worried that after the war, Biden, who is more popular in Israel than Netanyahu for dramatically rushing to Israel’s side, will press for renewal of peace negotiations. And he will link that to brokering Israel-Saudi normalization. The Saudis had been indifferent to the Palestinian cause prior to October 7 but will have no choice in the post-war era.
Stopping that rapprochement is believed to have been a motivating factor in Hamas’s attack and Iran’s backing. It had been Bibi’s mantra that by making deals with secular, moderate Arabs he could render the Palestinians irrelevant.
Any return to the peace table will require new leadership in Israel and the PA that is ready to make tough, historic decisions, and an American president who genuinely wants to help and is trusted by both sides.
Even if a new government emerges after this war – as it must – and it endorses the two-state solution, real talks could still be years away. The first requirement must be a Palestinian Authority that can speak for both the West Bank and Gaza, a halt to settlement expansion, and a crackdown on the violent agitators on both sides.
Each party will need to resuscitate its own peace camp and reach out to the other side to convince them of its sincerity.
Sympathy for Israel after the October 7 Hamas massacre began to fade as television showed pictures of Israel’s massive bombing campaign that laid waste to Gaza City and the death toll that the Hamas Health Ministry says has passed 10,000, half of them women and children.
While support for Israel remains strong in the United States, sympathy for the Palestinians has grown noticeably and the country was swept by an unprecedented wave of antisemitism. Biden’s backing among his party’s progressives and Arab-American voters has plunged. Those voters are unlikely to turn to the Republican party, especially if it is Trump, who is talking about expanding his first-term Muslim ban, but they could just stay home on November 5 and help elect him that way.
As the war in Gaza enters its second month, back on the other side of the country, Netanyahu’s messianic and ultranationalist partners are working to tighten their grip on the West Bank, expand their settlements, annex the land, and drive out the Palestinians. They also want to re-occupy Gaza. Biden has said it would be a major mistake, but the prime minister announced Monday that Israel plans to assume responsibility for Gaza’s security for an “indefinite period.” In other words, Joe, we don’t want your damn advice, just your money and your weapons.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.