Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised stability, but two months into his new tenure, Israeli divisions have deepened, West Bank violence has escalated and splits have emerged in his coalition.
JERUSALEM — When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year, he repeatedly reassured skeptics that he would be able to maintain Israeli stability, despite governing in coalition with far-right settler activists and ultraconservative religious leaders.
But while Mr. Netanyahu’s juggling act initially seemed to succeed, there are now signs that his control over his country’s security situation and his own coalition is ebbing. Amid social turmoil in Israel and unusually intense violence in the occupied territories, Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to balance the interests of his extremist allies with the demands of more moderate Israelis and foreign allies have begun to falter.
On Monday, a day after Israeli settlers rampaged largely unchecked through several Palestinian villages in the West Bank to avenge the killing of two Jews, setting fires to homes and businesses, Israel’s political divisions were on clear display.
A far-right party in the coalition, led by Mr. Netanyahu’s national security minister, boycotted a session in Parliament at which the prime minister spoke out against the arson attacks. An ultra-Orthodox party also stayed away for most of the session. Then another far-right ally resigned as a deputy minister, complaining that Mr. Netanyahu had reneged on their coalition agreement.
“Things around him are imploding,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a biographer of Mr. Netanyahu. “Netanyahu has totally lost his best asset — being the calm, stable, firm hand on the steering wheel.”
The tensions in the coalition government come against a broader backdrop of social unrest that was set off by Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.
A government move to overhaul the judiciary has prompted one of the largest waves of protests in Israeli history, the beginnings of capital flight, threats by army reservists to refuse military service, and warnings from leading politicians of political violence and even civil war.
In the occupied West Bank, frequent gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen have led to the deadliest start to any year for Palestinians in the territory since 2000, according to Palestinian officials. Palestinian attacks have also killed at least 14 Israelis, including seven killed in the deadliest attack in Jerusalem for a decade and a half.
The prime minister’s supporters say that he remains firmly in charge, however rocky the opening to his new tenure, and argue that much of the turbulence is not unique to his administration. “Prime Minister Netanyahu is an experienced leader,” his office said in a brief statement. “He keeps full control of his government. Working around the clock.”
A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence
A recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has stoked fears that tensions may further escalate.
- On Edge: The occupied West Bank is bracing for the possibility of more violence after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli brothers and Jewish settlers went on a rampage.
- Lethal Raids: An Israeli Army raid in the West Bank on Feb. 22 was the second in less than a month to end in the deaths of at least 10 Palestinians — two of the most lethal such incidents in years.
- Balancing Act: In the aftermath of recent Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faced domestic calls for a harsh crackdown as well as international pressure to show moderation.
- Fueling Tensions: The roots of the violence predate Israel’s new far-right government, but analysts fear the administration’s ministers and goals will further inflame the situation.
Despite the tensions within his coalition, Mr. Netanyahu seems likely to pass a national budget in Parliament, a major government milestone that eluded him in his most recent administrations and one that could not be achieved without at least some unity in his alliance.
And violence often surges in Israel and the West Bank; the current increase in Palestinian attacks and Israeli raids began to increase under the last government.
While Mr. Netanyahu often worked with unruly and hard-line partners during his previous coalition governments, this time is different. In the past, he was often at the political center of his coalitions, allowing him to moderate one wing of an alliance with the demands of the other.
But now, Mr. Netanyahu himself is at the left-most edge of his right-wing coalition, unable to triangulate between rival factions.
If Mr. Netanyahu reneges on his promises to them, he risks their resignation and the collapse of the coalition.
His predicament is rooted in his decision to remain in frontline politics despite standing trial for corruption. That move alienated many of his more moderate former allies, leaving him with few potential coalition partners.
In response, he turned to far-right leaders to form a governing coalition last December. To win their favor, he signed agreements with them in which he vowed, among other promises, to make sweeping changes to the judiciary and to entrench Israel’s control of and settlement in the West Bank.
Mr. Netanyahu’s promises on settlements enraged Palestinians and galvanized settlers in the West Bank, exacerbating an already combustible situation in the territory. And his move to rein in the judiciary set off the unusually large and dogged protest movement now gripping the country, prompted fears for Israeli democracy and led some major business leaders to announce plans to divest.
With every move the Israel leader makes to placate settlers — like giving retroactive authorization to settlements built without government permission, or taking harsher actions against armed Palestinian groups — Mr. Netanyahu risks provoking a still stronger Palestinian reaction.
He also risks censure from the Biden administration. This week, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said the United States expected those behind the latest attacks to be held to account. Palestinians who lost property, he said, should be reimbursed.
“Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence and equal resources dedicated to prevent such attacks and bring those responsible to justice,” Mr. Price said.
Mr. Netanyahu’s allies insist that he will be able to balance these competing demands.
“Anyone who knows Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that his personal and political abilities, in particular, are above question,” said May Golan, a minister without portfolio in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet.
She discounted reports of divisions in the cabinet.
“There is a huge gap between what is published in the media and the ongoing management of the coalition,” Ms. Golan said. “Our coalition is a homogeneous, right-wing, Zionist coalition — with identical goals, identical values and identical objectives.”
Some analysts reckon that Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies are unlikely to abandon him because they know that they have few other routes to power without him. But critics say he is in danger of losing control of both his government and the country.
Every move he takes to placate President Biden, such as sending an envoy to meet with Palestinian leaders in Jordan on Sunday, angers his far-right allies and encourages them to take countermeasures.
After Mr. Netanyahu criticized settler attacks in the West Bank this week, his national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called for an end to what he called the government’s “policy of containment.” Mr. Ben-Gvir also turned up at an unauthorized settler outpost, calling for it to be kept in place even as security forces evicted settlers who had moved there.
The contortions inherent within Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy were particularly apparent on Sunday, when the Biden administration announced that the Israelis and the Palestinians had agreed to several de-escalatory measures, including a freeze on new settlement announcements. Hours later, amid criticism from Mr. Netanyahu’s right flank, the Israeli government said there had been “no construction freeze” and “no change in Israeli policy.”
“Is he riding the tiger, or is the tiger riding him?” Ben Caspit, another Netanyahu biographer, asked in a column in mid-February in the newspaper Maariv.