JERUSALEM – Palestinians’ recent attacks on Israelis are, at first blush, not an existential threat to Israel. Horrific as the losses are, the future of the state is not in question.
Or so it seems. But in a closer look, it appears that this round of violence is costing Israel more than the human toll. As the Palestinians clearly intend, the renewed conflict is doing serious damage to Israel’s international standing.
One of the first indications of this swing in public opinion was a comment by Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, who laid part of the blame for November’s terrorist attacks in Paris on Israel. “To counteract the radicalization we must go back to the situation such as the one in the Middle East of which not the least the Palestinians see that there is no future: We must either accept a desperate situation or resort to violence,” she said on Swedish TV.
A tongue-lashing from Sweden was not terribly surprising. Relations between Israel and Sweden have been rather icy since Sweden decided, in October 2014, to recognize Palestine as a state. In response to that declaration, Israel snubbed Wallstrom, who responded by canceling a scheduled trip to Israel. Yet despite the cool relations, blaming Islamic State attacks on Israel seemed a new low for a Swedish official. Israeli officials rebuked Wallstrom, but the public was keenly aware that relations between the Jewish state and parts of Europe had hit a new low.
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said to the Security Council that “It is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.” Once again, the Israeli government responded with fury. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that the secretary-general had provided “a tailwind for terrorism” and insisted that “those Palestinians who murder do not want to build a state, they want to destroy a state and they say this openly.”
In this case, even moderates joined the condemnation. After a New York Times op-ed article in which Ban defended his remarks, the centrist columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that he was “eagerly awaiting Ban Ki-moon’s New York Times op-ed criticizing Russia’s intervention in Syria.”
The momentum, however, was with Wallstrom and Ban. Last Wednesday, three Palestinian killed one border policewoman and critically wounded another. After the three terrorists were killed by Israeli security forces, CBS News’s website posted a headline that read “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on.” Israeli officials responded with outrage, so CBS emended the headline to “Israeli police kill 3 alleged Palestinian attackers.” Still, though, the attackers were only “alleged,” and the two assaulted women were nowhere mentioned. Finally, CBS changed the headline again, this time to “Palestinians kill Israeli officer, wound another before being killed.”
The relentless Palestinian attacks are beginning to evoke policy disagreements inside Israel’s leadership. Netanyahu continues to blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for inciting the violence — and to some extent, he is clearly correct.
But Israeli military and security services have been insisting that while Abbas is far from innocent, there are socioeconomic factors contributing to the violence. “The motivation for action is based on feelings of national, economic and personal discrimination,” a report from the Shin Bet security agency stated last month. “For some of the assailants an attack provides an escape from a desperate reality they believe cannot be changed.” The irony — and the danger — is that the Israeli security analysis sounds very much like that of the Swedish foreign minister. Netanyahu can get away with insisting (probably quite rightly) that Wallstrom is simply a foe of Israel, but he cannot say the same of the Shin Bet. So why not make some accommodation to defuse the tension? The prime minister is clearly worried that any change in Israeli policy now will convince the Palestinians that violence works. For indeed, it does. The First Intifada led Israel to the Madrid Conference and subsequent Oslo Accords, while Gazan violence got Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. So Netanyahu, eager to undo that lesson, is holding fast.
But that may not work for long; there are indications that the violence may be picking up. At the funeral of Amjad Sakari, a Palestinian security officer who opened fire on Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoint, wounding two of them seriously before being killed himself, the thousands of mourners chanted “It is time for the machine gun, to shoot 500 people.” That may not be just talk. The three terrorists who were the subject of CBS’s headline were carrying explosives — a reminder of the horrendous bloodletting of the Second Intifada.
Netanyahu is thus in a bind. He can stand firm, as he has so far, refusing to reward terrorism with changes in Israel’s policy. If he does so, however, stabbings and individual shootings may soon be remembered as the mere beginning of something much worse.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” and “The Promise of Israel.”