The clock is ticking: will Naftali Bennett make it to his first anniversary as PM?

The Knesset ended the second week of its summer session with a coalition that is barely holding on


Israeli politics is gripped by a countdown: will Naftali Bennett remain in office long enough to celebrate his first anniversary in power next month?

The Knesset ended the second week of its summer session with a coalition that no longer has a majority barely holding on. There are eight weeks to go before Mr Bennett can rest easy, at least until after the High Holidays.

Unlike other prime ministers who get to stay in office after the Knesset is dissolved, throughout an election campaign until a new government is formed, he is under the additional threat of being replaced immediately by the Alternate Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, if three members of his own “bloc” of parties in the coalition join the dissolution vote. And since two of his Yamina MKs have already defected, it will take just one more.

Some of Mr Bennett’s advisers have been counselling him to take a rightwards tack, provoking the Islamist Ra’am party to bolt and vote for dissolution, thereby ensuring him a few more months as interim PM. The argument over this has been tearing his team apart and was one of the main reasons for the surprise departure last week of his influential diplomatic advisor and “gatekeeper”, Shimrit Meir.

But as it also transpired that the opposition led by Benjamin Netanyahu still hasn’t got the votes to dissolve the Knesset, Mr Bennett sent out messages to coalition partners that he was still determined to try to keep the government alive. Whether or not he has the power to do so remains to be seen, but we can at least hold off for a few more weeks before looking back on his first and perhaps only year in power.

Palestinian issue returns

For most of the past 11 months, the Bennett government has enjoyed a near-total absence of diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian issue. There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the fact that it has been steadily downgraded on the global agenda for the past decade. Then there is the fact that the government came to office shortly after the ceasefire of hostilities in Gaza (a ceasefire which has largely held). In addition, there is the goodwill from many of Israel’s allies towards Mr Netanyahu’s replacement, plus the understanding that a coalition which includes right-wingers, centrists, left-wingers and Islamists is in no place to embark on daring diplomatic initiatives. And, of course, the world has much bigger problems to deal with right now, such as the climate crisis and war in Ukraine.

The death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh last Wednesday in Jenin, and the chaotic scenes at her funeral in Jerusalem two days later, were the first time in this government’s tenure that the Palestinian issue has been on the front pages of the international media and caused foreign governments to make their concerns known.

Since investigations are ongoing into whether Ms Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli or Palestinian bullet in the gunfight in Jenin, the saga is far from over. The government is still preparing for further diplomatic and hasbara repercussions. These are probably the wrong things to be worrying about. Even if the verdict is that it was an Israeli soldier who fired the deadly shot, it’s hard to see any government changing its policy towards Israel as a result.

It was interesting that the Arab regimes with which Israel has diplomatic relations were noticeably quiet throughout; they all have their own issues with Al Jazeera and its Qatari paymasters. The same is true of the international media. The flurry of attention will die down just as quickly, if not quicker, than after the Gaza war last year.

Most news organisations have been gradually drawing down their presence in Israel over the past decade, largely due to fatigue from a never-ending conflict and growing interest in other places and wars. All foreign coverage resources are now focused on Ukraine and that’s not about to change in the coming months, perhaps years.

The government would do a lot better to direct its response inwards, to the dysfunction of Jerusalem’s police forces. It was on such stark display during the funeral, when heavily armed police officers waded into the procession, almost toppling the coffin, causing senior officials from Israel’s other security agencies a collective fit of apoplexy. Some of the words used to describe Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman are unprintable.

Ironically, over the past few weeks Deputy Commissioner Turgeman was being praised for having “learned the lessons from last year”. On the eve of Ramadan 2021, as newly-appointed commander of Jerusalem District, he had ordered riot-control fences be placed in the small plaza outside Damascus Gate, the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem, sparking off a month-long series of turf-wars between Palestinian youths and police, which eventually escalated into a war with Hamas in Gaza. This year, he was praised for keeping a much lower police profile in the main tension spots during Ramadan, as a result of which, despite a wave of terror attacks that killed 19 in Israeli cities, Jerusalem remained relatively calm.

And then, with Ramadan over, once again police heavy-handedness in Jerusalem created both a damaging media spectacle as well as a rare moment of unity for Palestinians, which transcended both the political divides and the border fences between the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel and Gaza.

“Once again, we’ve seen how the police is the weakest and most stupid link in Israel’s security structure,” said one exasperated official. “Foreigners who think Israel is a clever country look at these scenes and think it’s deliberate, rather than just rank incompetence.”

Those complaining of how poor the Israeli government’s media response was last week to the events around Ms Abu Akleh’s death should also look to the police, which for the past year hasn’t found the time to appoint a new permanent spokesperson for foreign media within its well-staffed communications department.

At the height of the media barrage, Prime Minister Bennett’s foreign media spokesperson, Keren Hajioff, found herself having to translate and relay police statements to news organisations around the world. No surprise if you have experience of dealing with Israeli police.

Unedifying blame game

Of course, it’s not just the Jerusalem police which isn’t fit for purpose. The rot in the organisation goes way beyond the capital.

As this column is being written, the Lag ba’Omer festivities at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave on Mount Meron are at their peak. Exactly a year ago, Meron was the site of Israel’s worst civilian disaster when 45 men and boys were trampled to death when they slipped and fell on a makeshift passageway. Hopefully, by the time you read this, we will know that this year’s pilgrimage ended without casualties.

The passageway has been dismantled, and with it dozens of other illegal structures in the small compound. The Religious Service ministry, before Mr Kahana resigned, had prepared a new framework for this year’s events, under which only those who had applied in advance for tickets for a specific hour were to enter. At no point will more than 16,000 people be allowed inside the compound (as opposed to around 70,000 in previous years) and to shorten the time each individual spends there, no food is to be consumed.

But while the infrastructure and crowd control have been improved, not all the lessons have been learned.

The families of the 45 who died have yet to be compensated and responsibility for a tragedy that was all too easy to foresee has yet to be established. The national commission of enquiry is still hearing evidence, its work delayed by the reluctance of the Netanyahu government to form a commission (it was appointed as the first decision by the Bennett government) and hearings had to be suspended after the death of its first chair, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, in January.

One of the least edifying sights in the hearings so far has been the testimony of Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who spent his time on the stand dumping all responsibility on Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi. In turn, Deputy Commissioner Lavi explained how the police were powerless to prevent more people entering the compound due to “political pressure.”

Commissioner Shabtai was appointed by the Netanyahu government in January 2021, after a period of two years in which Israeli police, under a cloud due to the corruption investigations into Mr Netanyahu’s affairs, led by its previous commissioner, did not have a permanent chief.

He has spent nearly his entire career in the paramilitary Border Police and has very little experience of routine policing or investigations. His appointment was widely seen as an attempt by the government to discourage any further “political” investigations.

A number of senior officers have taken early retirement on his watch. But for now, he cannot be moved (though sources close to Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev say he would dearly like to fire him) until the Mount Meron Commission delivers its report

At least this year, the police have the government’s backing to try and ensure the Lag ba’Omer pilgrimage ends without casualties.

On Tuesday, the day before hundreds of thousands began making their way north, a group of radical strictly-Orthodox men who arrived early tussled with police, trying to prepare the site.

It may seem strange that those who profess to follow all the Torah’s commandments so blithely ignore the commandment to “greatly beware for your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:15), but then pilgrimages in all cultures and regions tend to include an element of danger.

Meron is just for beginners. The hardcore pilgrims are already planning their trip in two weeks to visit Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s grave in Uman, in wartorn Ukraine.

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