Israel needs to focus on terrorism, not politics - analysis

It was stunning how quickly Yamina MK Idit Silman’s decision changed the conversation in the country, and how the focus went from terrorism to politics.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shakes hands with Counterterrorism Unit officers. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shakes hands with Counterterrorism Unit officers.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Following four deadly terrorist attacks that killed 13 people in just over two weeks, the cabinet on Sunday established a committee to formulate policy regarding withholding state benefits from Israeli citizens and east Jerusalem residents involved in hostile security actions against the country.

Such a policy, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, is needed to hammer home that it is not worthwhile to carry out attacks against Israeli citizens. It is part of an effort by his government to create disincentives to terrorism – with the thinking being that if a potential terrorist knows his family’s National Insurance Institute benefits would be cut off if he is involved in terrorism, he might give it a second thought.

This is obviously not the silver bullet that will once and for all put an end to terrorism in Israel. Yet it is one of several steps that, taken together, may deter somewhat and make a dent.

It is also the type of far-reaching step – taking away the child allowances of Israeli citizens and residents, for instance – that will need a functioning government to push through and eventually approve.

The committee established on Sunday is tasked with coming up with its recommendations within two months. But imagine what would happen if, before it does so, the Knesset is dissolved and new elections are called. Then the work of this committee would likely be stalled as questions would be raised about whether an interim government has the authority to make such far-reaching decisions.

 Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a rally in Jerusalem last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a rally in Jerusalem last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

And this is just one example of steps that will be taken to stop the terror that could be delayed or sidetracked were the country to be hurtled into another election cycle as a result of Yamina MK Idit Silman’s decision last week to bolt the government, throwing the nation’s political picture into utter disarray.

It was stunning how quickly Silman’s decision changed the conversation in the country, and how the focus went from terrorism – at that time, Israel was just coming off of the burial of those killed in the Bnei Brak attack – and onto politics. It was equally stunning how after Thursday night’s attack in Tel Aviv, any focus now on politics – rather than on ending this current wave of terror – seems so utterly frivolous.

In the face of 13 citizens being gunned down on the streets of this country’s major cities, coalition politics all of a sudden feels inconsequential.

First, deal with issues of life and death, and then focus on whether bread (hametz) can be taken into the country’s hospitals on Passover, the trigger – though not the true cause – of the current coalition crisis. The true cause: After 10 months in power, the eight ideologically diverse parties that make up the coalition forgot the need to put into storage some of their ideologies to ensure this unique government would continue to govern.

For instance, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz blundered badly when – motivated by his party’s uncompromising ideology – he sent a gratuitous letter to hospital heads to abide by a court decision to allow guests to bring hametz into hospitals on Passover, thereby embarrassing Silman with her constituents.

Bennett, at the cabinet meeting, said that “giving state payments to terrorist families is completely absurd, and the time has come to correct this injustice. The government of Israel will continue to fight terrorism with all the tools at its disposal; there are no restrictions on this issue.”

But a functioning government will be needed to make available those tools, which is why going to elections at this time would be so self-defeating. If there are elections, the high-powered tools needed to deal with terrorism will not be given to the government.

“These are difficult days,” Bennett said at the cabinet meeting. “But we have experience with these types of days and know how to overcome them. Internal political disagreements have always been and will always be.”

Unlike its enemies, he said, Israel is a democracy, which is a source of strength, “but not something that will prevent us from joining hands together and forming a wall against terrorism and hatred.”

It is not clear, however, whether Bennett’s last statement is descriptive of reality or wishful thinking. Does he have information that leads him to believe that at this critical moment, the country’s political parties will join hands and form a wall against terrorism, or is he expressing his desire that this be the case?

Of course, it should be the case. As such, the last thing the country needs right now is an election campaign that would only highlight the country’s divisions at a time when what needs to be underlined is a united purpose to defeat terrorism.

An election campaign now would inevitably lead to leaders taking their eyes off the ball and focusing on the campaign. One of the problems of the interim governments that Israel experienced during that cycle of elections from 2019 to 2021 was that whenever security-related decisions were made, always lurking in the background was the question of motivation: Was then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu responding as he did because that is what the situation demanded or to win votes?

Were the country hurtled into yet another election cycle now, the same questions would hover above all of Bennett’s decisions.

Silman, whose decision to leave the coalition precipitated this crisis, also seems to realize this. She put to rest Sunday any speculation that she would backtrack on her decision, saying it is principled and final. She then called not for new elections but, rather, for a new government to be formed in the present Knesset.

This means the Knesset would pass a constructive no-confidence vote in the government, something that would bring down this government but coronate a new prime minister and cabinet without going to elections.

That scenario is only remotely realistic if Netanyahu would either voluntarily give up his aspirations to lead the country again or be shown the door by his Likud colleagues, at which point perhaps Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, or New Hope together with Yisrael Beytenu, might be willing to vote no confidence in the government and agree on another prime minister, and government, to lead the nation.

A very long shot at best, that scenario would be preferable to a divisive election. But at a time when the government’s focus needs to be on keeping another terrorist from going on a killing spree, shouldn’t all of this just be put off to another day?