By Ramzy Baroud
After signing a military decree on May 18 allowing illegal Israeli Jewish settlers to reclaim the abandoned Homesh settlement in the northern West Bank, the Israeli government informed the US Biden administration that it would not turn the area into a new settlement. The latter revelation was reported by Axios on May 23.
This contradiction is hardly surprising. While Israel’s far-right ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich know precisely what they want, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to perform an impossible political balancing act: He wants to fulfill all the wishes of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, but without veering away from the US political agenda in the Middle East and without creating the circumstances that could eventually topple the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, Netanyahu wants to normalize relations with Arab governments, while continuing to colonize Palestine, expand settlements and take complete control of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Palestinian Muslim and Christian holy shrines.
Worse still, he wants, as per the insistence of Ben-Gvir and his extremist religious constituency, to repopulate Homesh and create new outposts, while avoiding an all-out armed rebellion in the West Bank.
Concurrently, Netanyahu wants good relations with Arabs and Muslims, while constantly humiliating, oppressing and killing Arabs and Muslims.
Such a feat is virtually impossible.
Netanyahu is not a novice politician who is failing at appeasing all his target audiences simultaneously. He is a right-wing ideologue who uses the Zionist ideology and Jewish religion as the foundation of his political agenda. Anywhere else, especially in the Western world, Netanyahu would be perceived as a far-right politician.
One of the reasons that the West is yet to brand Netanyahu as such is that, if there was general agreement that he presents an affront to democracy, it would be difficult to engage with him diplomatically. While the far-right Italian government of Giorgia Meloni hosted Netanyahu in March, US President Joe Biden is yet to meet the Israeli leader in person, months after the latter composed his latest government of far-right religionists.
Netanyahu is aware of all these challenges and that his country’s reputation, even among allies, is in tatters. He is, however, determined to persevere for his own sake.
It took five elections in four years for Netanyahu to assemble a relatively stable government. New elections carry risks, as the opposition leader, Yair Lapid, is slated to win a majority of seats if another election were to be held.
But satisfying Ben-Gvir and others is turning Israel into a country governed by populist, nationalist leaders determined to institute a religious war. Judging by the evidence on the ground, they might get what they want.
The truth is neither Ben-Gvir nor Smotrich has Netanyahu’s political savvy or experience. Rather, they are the political equivalent of bulls in a China shop. They want to sow the seeds of chaos and use the mayhem to further their agenda: more illegal settlements, more ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and, ultimately, a religious war.
Due to these pressures, Netanyahu, with an expansionist agenda of his own, is unable to follow a clear blueprint regarding how to fully annex large parts of the West Bank and render Palestinians permanently stateless. He cannot develop and maintain a consistent strategy because his allies have a strategy of their own. And, unlike Netanyahu, they care little for overstepping their boundaries with Washington, Brussels, Cairo or Amman.
This must be frustrating for Netanyahu, who — through his 15 years in office — has developed an effective strategy based on several equilibriums. While slowly colonizing the West Bank and maintaining a siege and conducting occasional wars in Gaza, he has learned to feign the language of peace and reconciliation internationally. Though he has had troubles with Washington in the past, Netanyahu often prevailed, with the support of the US Congress. And though he has provoked Arab, Muslim and African countries on numerous occasions, he has still managed to normalize ties with many of them.
His was a winning strategy, which he bragged about shamelessly during every election campaign. But it seems that the party is now finally over.
Netanyahu’s new political agenda is now motivated by a single objective: his own survival. Or, rather, that of his family, several of whom are implicated by charges of corruption and nepotism. If the current Israeli government collapses under the weight of its own contradictions and extremism, it would be nearly impossible for Netanyahu to recover his position. If the far-right parties abandon Netanyahu’s Likud, Israel will sink even deeper into a seemingly unending political crisis and social turmoil.
For now, Netanyahu will have to stay the course — that of unprovoked wars, deadly raids on the West Bank, attacks on holy shrines, repopulating or establishing new illegal settlements, allowing armed settlers to unleash daily violence against Palestinians, and so on, regardless of the consequences of these actions.
One of these consequences is widening the armed rebellion to reach the rest of the West Bank. For a few years now, the armed struggle phenomenon has been growing across the West Bank. In areas like Nablus and Jenin, armed resistance groups have grown in power to the point that the PA is left with little control over these regions.
This phenomenon is also an outcome of the lack of a true Palestinian leadership that invests more in representing and protecting Palestinians against Israeli violence than engaging in “security coordination” with the Israeli military.
Now that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s followers are wreaking havoc in the West Bank in the absence of any protection for Palestinian civilians, Palestinian fighters are adopting the role of protectors. The Lions’ Den is a direct manifestation of this reality.
For Palestinians, armed resistance is a natural response to military occupation, apartheid and settler violence. It is not a political strategy per se. For Israel, however, violence is a strategy.
For Netanyahu, the frequent deadly raids on Palestinian towns and refugee camps translate into political assets that allow him to keep his extremist supporters happy. But this is short-term thinking. If Israel’s unchecked violence continues, the West Bank could soon find itself in an all-out military uprising against Israel and open rebellion against the PA.
Then, no magic trick or balancing act by Netanyahu can possibly control the outcomes.