A convergence of political and security crises in Israel leads to a perfect storm

Israel© Kobi Wolf

Israel : In Israel’s biggest city, Tel Aviv, a large crowd of protesters turned silent at dusk to observe a moment of silence in memory of an Italian tourist and two British Israeli sisters who were killed in two separate terrorist attacks the day before. The previously boisterous crowd, consisting of tens of thousands of people, waved British and Italian flags in solidarity with the victims. The peaceful atmosphere contrasted sharply with the rowdiness of the earlier protest.

The protest held on Saturday in this location did not pertain to terrorism or the recent outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence across various parts of Israel in the preceding week. Rather, the large gathering of Israelis, situated a mere two miles away from where the Italian tourist lost their life, was protesting a purely domestic issue – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul, which has been the impetus for significant, and at times turbulent, demonstrations throughout the country in recent weeks.

Israel© Provided by NBC News

As tensions continue to mount, Israel’s two overlapping crises – one pertaining to national security and the other to domestic politics – are increasingly intersecting, resulting in a “perfect storm” that has left the country exposed on multiple fronts, more than at any other time in recent history, according to analysts.

In an interview with NBC News, Dennis Citrinowicz, a former official of Israeli defense intelligence, characterized Israel’s actions as a “gift” to its adversaries, including Hamas, Iran, and the Iran-supported Hezbollah militant group based in Lebanon.

According to him, the only viable method to ensure Israel’s deterrence against extremist elements is by “finding a solution to the existing instability in Israel,” including its political arena. Failure to do so, he warns, will embolden Israel’s adversaries to continue exploiting the situation.

Israel’s most formidable adversaries, such as Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, are predicting that the nation will soon disintegrate under the strain of its internal divisions. Though such a scenario seems improbable, these statements reflect a critical period of distraction for Israel’s security establishment.

As an illustration, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was dismissed by Netanyahu but then reinstated on Monday. Gallant cautioned that the judicial reform was so polarizing and detrimental to military morale that it posed a threat to Israel’s national security.

Israel© Fadi Amun

Netanyahu, who initially fired Gallant, later retracted his decision, stating that they must “put our disagreements behind us” and unite to confront the security challenges on all fronts.

Within a span of seven days, Israel has engaged in hostilities with Palestinians and groups with links to them in the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip along the coast, and both Lebanon and Syria to the north. Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab nations to forge a peace agreement with Israel many years ago, are the only neighboring countries that have maintained peaceful borders with Israel in recent times.

Except for the clashes in the West Bank, all of the recent incidents were retaliatory measures against rockets fired into Israel, which, in turn, were reprisals for Israeli operations at a site in Jerusalem that is revered by both Jews and Muslims, during the Passover and Ramadan religious holidays.

At the same time, the incidents of Palestinian violence targeting Jewish settlers in the West Bank have empowered ultra-nationalist ministers in Israel’s government to push for a more forceful Israeli reaction and a policy of expansionism in settlements. This escalation of demands has put pressure on Netanyahu as he is caught between his far-right allies and the U.S. officials who urge him to exercise restraint in the West Bank. Most nations deem Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be unlawful.

Netanyahu’s government, which is the most right-wing in the history of Israel, has a majority so narrow that only a few defections could bring it down. This situation gives disproportionate power to the most radical members of his coalition. After three tumultuous months of ruling, a recent survey conducted by Israel’s Channel 13 News indicates that support for Netanyahu’s Likud party is declining, with the party on track to fall significantly below a parliamentary majority if new elections were held at present.

Israel© Mohammed Abed

However, in history, military conflicts and external security threats tend to reduce criticism of the government in power, as the U.S. experienced after the Sept. 11 attacks, known as the “rally ’round the flag” effect. Critics claim that Netanyahu, who has leveraged his image as a hawkish protector of Israeli security for decades of political triumphs, is deliberately fueling conflicts at present to divert attention from the domestic turmoil.

Merissa Khurma, who heads the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, stated that “The timing is very advantageous for Netanyahu and his government since it grants them some leeway. If they can project an external enemy, that will be helpful for them.”

Israeli officials accused Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip and frequently fires at Israel, of being responsible for the rockets launched from Lebanon on Friday, rather than any group based in Lebanon, whose government is in the midst of its own significant political crisis. Nonetheless, the attacks were a reason for Israel to be concerned in a new way.

According to sources, there are indications that Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim group controlling much of southern Lebanon, is developing closer ties with Hamas, a Sunni group with which it has not always seen eye-to-eye. The leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah held a publicized meeting on Sunday in Beirut, providing further evidence of increased ties and possible coordination between the two groups, each of which has fought wars against Israel in the past.

The spillover of Israel’s political crisis into national security is evident in yet another sign, where leaked U.S. intelligence documents obtained by The New York Times and The Washington Post showed that the leadership of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, had allegedly encouraged protests against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul by Israeli civilians and its own staffers. If true, this would mark a significant departure from Mossad’s long-standing tradition of abstaining from Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s government has strongly denied these allegations.

Even though Israel has made some diplomatic progress with Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, its attempts to use these new relations to ease tensions with Palestinians are complicated by the internal political struggles of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank with international support, has not held elections since 2006, leading to a decline in foreign support. Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and many other nations. These challenges have contributed to worsening economic and social conditions for Palestinians.

As Israel moves away from a two-state solution, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have been able to deliver on their promises for an independent state, leaving many Palestinians disillusioned and leading to an increase in violence.

Israel© Mohammed Abed

While the Arab states in the Persian Gulf generally sympathize with the Palestinian cause, they are hesitant to engage actively due to what Paul Salem, head of the Middle East Institute in Washington, calls “years if not decades of very poor Palestinian leadership.” These countries want to support the Palestinians, but believe that the Palestinians need to do their part and improve their leadership.

Israeli leaders had hoped that the Arab Gulf States had shifted their focus from viewing Israel as a threat to seeing Shia-led Iran as the bigger regional threat. However, this hope has been challenged by the recent reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni powerhouse in the Gulf, brokered by China.

According to Citrinowicz, a former Israeli defense official and current member of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian issue and the domestic instability in Israel are the biggest threats now. Citrinowicz emphasized the need for unity among Israelis.

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