The sense of tragedy in Israel last weekend was stifling. On Friday, a young couple was laid to rest after being murdered in front of their four children, and by Saturday night there were further victims of this spate of terror that is gripping Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Friday’s attack was a highway shooting; Saturday’s was a stabbing, and both were incidents of unmentionable cruelty. The result was the same — lives cut off in their primes, and families and communities grappling with the senseless, pointless loss.
It’s still not an intifada, but with the intensity of terror, it certainly has echoes of one. And that is exactly what many on the Palestinian side want — including Saturday’s attacker, judging by a recent message he posted on Facebook championing the notion that a third intifada has begun.
Whether or not the new round of violence becomes an intifada, what is clear is that Israel is facing an extremely serious assault on the security of its citizens, and that defending them is a major challenge.
And so, when the country’s prime minister addressed the United Nations General Assembly for his annual speech last Thursday, he should have used it as an opportunity to assert Israel’s rights to fight this terror. He could have strengthened Israel’s legitimacy to deal with this over the coming months.
But predictably, Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of his speech focused on Iran. He talked about an agreement that is deeply problematic — but one that, as far as most of his audience was concerned, is a done deal.
It sounded like a speech in which he was desperately telling the public back home that he is still relevant, that the world may have laughed in his face at his pleas to shelve the Iran deal, but he’s not taking it lying down. He won’t stop telling the truth as he sees it, and warning of the doom that the deal can bring. And he won’t be intimidated by the big world powers — he will stand up and scold them, and decry the UN’s “obsessively hostile” stance toward Israel.
Except for kudos in his own country, it’s hard to see what Netanyahu gained from the speech.
Even though Netanyahu spoke before the latest two deadly attacks, the growing terror in Jerusalem and the West Bank was already a major issue. It was already clear that fighting this terror is going to necessitate increased security operations by Israel in Palestinian areas, and when Israel steps up security operations, tensions flare and Israel becomes the focus of increased criticism and controversy. The lower the sympathy internationally for Israel’s objectives, the louder the criticism.
Unless something changes unexpectedly, six months down the line, we will all be having some familiar conversations — about what seems to be a new wave of criticism against Israel after it conducts some operations to counter terror in Jerusalem and the West Bank and the operations become the subject of intense criticism internationally.
“The world doesn’t understand,” Israel’s supporters around the world will be posting on Facebook. “Israel has been acting in self-defense. Citizens don’t feel safe.” Bibi could have been ahead of the game.
On the Palestinian side, they are already working to drum up international outrage against Israel measures. “The collective punishment that the Palestinian people have suffered over the past 48 hours … proves that the Israeli government is deliberately creating a situation of violence and instability that threatens to spiral out of control,” claimed the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashwari, an ally of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on Tuesday.
She is already trying to galvanize all the opposition to Israeli policies that she managed to put together during the second intifada. “This government is thereby attempting to create the conditions for a new “Defensive Shield” operation similar to that of 2002 in which the Israeli Army carried out the senseless destruction of Palestinian lives, infrastructure and institutions,” Ashwari argued.
Why didn’t Netanyahu stand up at the UN and tell his audience that they know his stance on Iran and he’s not backing down or softening, but there are also other challenges facing Israel, and Israeli citizens deserve the world to understand about the terror rearing its head in and around Jerusalem? He could have then discussed the impact of this violence on Israelis and the steps that Israel needs to take — reluctantly — in order to fight it, and showed openness to taking steps to de-escalate. He would have needed to approach the subject carefully, in order to ensure that his comments were constructive rather than adding flames to the fire, but it could have been done, even before Ashwari got on her soapbox.
The invitation to the Palestinians to return to negotiations was there in Netanyahu’s speech — to “immediately resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever.” He needed to say more on this; to discuss in general terms Israeli preparedness to make difficult concessions for peace, if indeed he is ready to make difficult concessions. And then he would have been in a position to tell the UN that Israel is going all-out to address the conflict with the Palestinians — hoping for an end to violence through negotiations, but with legitimacy to confront the rising terror if this opportunity isn’t embraced in Ramallah.
Bibi loves to be the international statesman, the one who knows what the West needs better than the West. “Stand with Israel because Israel is not just defending itself,” he told the UN. “More than ever, Israel is defending you.” But there are times when he needs to resist the opportunity to cast himself in this role, and instead go modestly but assertively to the international community and say that his small state is facing major challenges and wants the world’s understanding — and the Palestinians’ hand in peace.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.