Terrorism will be part of Israeli life under any government

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Wednesday’s twin bombings in Jerusalem highlighted the role terrorism plays in shaping attitudes in this country.

 HEAD OF THE Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at the scene of Wednesday’s bombing at the exit to Jerusalem (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HEAD OF THE Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at the scene of Wednesday’s bombing at the exit to Jerusalem
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It’s a scene that has repeated itself dozens of times over the years.

Terrorism strikes somewhere in the country, and before all the blood is washed off the street, Itamar Ben-Gvir is at the site amid protesters venting their anger at the Arabs, the police and the government.

It happened again on Wednesday in Jerusalem, but this time with a twist. This time Ben-Gvir didn’t come to the scene as a young rabble-rouser, as part of a swarm of angry youth shouting for revenge and calling on the government to take much tougher measures to put an end to the terrorism, but, rather, as the presumptive minister of public security.

We need to extract a price for terrorism,” he said. “Bring back targeted assassinations and stop the parties in the prisons where the terrorists laugh at us. The security prisons need to be closed today completely [to visitors]. We need to stop payment to the Palestinian Authority which gives support to terrorists. [We need to] see where the terrorist came from, go to that village, whether it is in little Israel or in Judea and Samaria, and impose a curfew – go house to house looking for weapons, and restore deterrence.”

Though there was something unseemly about Ben-Gvir usurping the authority of acting Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and going to the scene and making comments that – because of his new standing – might be confused with policy statements, his words surely resonated with a significant part of the public.

 The scene of the explosion at the entrance to Jerusalem (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) The scene of the explosion at the entrance to Jerusalem (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Wednesday’s twin bombings in Jerusalem – taking place so soon after the elections and as the coalition negotiations were well underway – highlighted the role terrorism plays in shaping attitudes in this country.

This is a truth often lost on observers from abroad, who are often at a loss as to why Israel adopts certain policies and votes as it does. Observers from abroad, who don’t live here, have a tendency to think that terrorism strikes, and then the country moves on. It is also an image that the country likes to project – one of incomparable resilience. Soon after Wednesday’s attack, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion took to the airwaves and said that the capital urgently needed to go back to normal. And he was right.

But don’t be confused. Don’t let the return to normalcy or the resilience fool you. Terrorist attacks are not forgotten; they leave traumas and scars, both physical and emotional. Anyone who lived here through the four-and-a-half mind-numbing, terror-filled years of the Second Intifada can attest to that.

And these traumas impact heavily on the country’s politics.

Ben-Gvir as a political force, as someone who now can determine the fate of the government, is a creation of terrorism. Were there no terrorism, Ben-Gvir would be a political nothing. For what message does he bring other than getting tougher with terrorists and restoring law and order?

In the country’s election in 2020, Ben-Gvir, as head of Otzma Yehudit, won 19,402 votes, or .42% of the electorate. In the last election, running together with Bezalel Smotrich, the Religious Zionist Party won 516,470, or 11% of the vote. Much of the party’s strong showing has been attributed to Ben-Gvir, whose faction, which has six seats, has since broken away from the RZP.

What happened? All of a sudden a half-million Israelis turned racist? All of a sudden 500,000 Israelis saw Meir Kahane’s light and became Kach followers?

No, what happened was that the reality on the ground – from the present mini-wave of terror that re-triggered traumas from larger waves of terror in the past, to the Arab riots last May in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities during Operation Guardian of the Walls – created fertile ground for Ben-Gvir’s message that order needs to be restored, terror needs to be defeated, and the enemy needs to be deterred.

The problem, of course, is that this is just so much easier said than done. It’s one thing to shout slogans; it’s another to implement policy. Just ask Avigdor Liberman, the currently mainstream politician who at one time was viewed almost as much as a far-right extremist as Ben-Gvir is viewed today.

Liberman became defense minister in 2016 after spending the previous number of years blasting the government, of which he was a member, for its “hesitant” approach to Gaza.

“We should conquer Gaza,” he said in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. “We can’t contemplate and hesitate all the time. This hesitation works against us. We have to go all the way. There is no other alternative here.”

Before the elections in 2015, as he was campaigning to become defense minister, he said, “When I’m defense minister, Hamas’s end will come.”

And then, in a famous interview in 2016, he proclaimed, “When I’m defense minister, I give Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours. Either you return the bodies [of IDF soldiers Oren Shaul and Hadar Goldin] and civilians [Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed] or you die. As far as I’m concerned, just reserve a spot at the closest cemetery.”

Liberman is long out of office, yet Gaza has not been conquered, Haniyeh is still standing, and the soldiers’ bodies and the two Israeli civilians remain in Hamas’s hands.

It’s one thing to declaim slogans, quite another to bend reality to your will.

TERRORISM, SADLY, has been an ugly feature of this country’s landscape since even before the state was born.

It struck when the Left was in power, and when the government was in the hands of the Right. It struck when Israel made far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, and when the diplomatic process was stagnant and there was no “political horizon.” It struck before there was a single settlement in the West Bank, in fact before Israel controlled the territories, and it struck after Israel gained control of Judea and Samaria.

It struck when Israel deported terrorists and demolished their family homes, and when it called terror fatalities “peace sacrifices.” It struck when Israel used a heavy hand and a lighter one. In short, it is a dismal feature of the landscape that, sadly, will remain as long as there is a Jewish presence in this part of the world.

This is something that Army Radio police reporter Hadas Shtaif should have realized when she hinted in a broadcast after Wednesday’s attack that Ben-Gvir’s expected appointment as public security minister was to blame for the bombings.

It is impossible to separate the event from the coalition negotiations and the desire to appoint a certain person [Ben-Gvir] to the position of managing a certain ministry [public security ministry],” she said on air.

She was promptly removed from covering the story.

Shtaif’s comment echoed a statement put out by Islamic Jihad and quoted on KAN Radio that the attack was a response and a signal to the incoming right-wing government.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. First of all, Wednesday’s twin attack necessitated weeks of planning, and it is highly unlikely all the logistical pieces were put together in the three weeks since the election.

Secondly, terrorism is a result of a right-wing government? Really? Then how to explain that 29 people were killed so far this year in terrorist attacks when the country was being governed not by a right-wing government but by the most diverse government in its history, a veritable rainbow coalition that includes the left-wing parties and even an Islamist party?

No, terrorism strikes independently of who is in power and has nothing to do with who is sitting in the government. What it has everything to do with, however, is Jews sitting in a sovereign state of their own in the Mideast, and won’t cease until that sovereign state ceases to exist.

That terrorism is a permanent fixture of our landscape does not mean that we should just accept it. That is obviously not the case. We should fight it, and we do – with great force and with tremendous guile. For every “successful” attack carried out like the one Wednesday in Jerusalem, or the one the week before in Ariel, dozens – literally dozens – are foiled.

It is not as though, as Ben-Gvir implied, Israel does not extract a price for terror. It does. But to imply that somehow there is a magic wand that, if just waved, will make terrorism disappear is wishful thinking and simplistic rhetoric.

Terrorism is a part of Israeli life

Terrorism is part of life here. Always has been, likely will be for the foreseeable future. What is stunning is that the country has flourished and blossomed as much as it has despite the terror. But that, too, is misleading, because terrorism leaves its footprint, and you see the size of that footprint in the ballot box, and that fully 75 members of the recently elected Knesset define themselves as right-wing.

In the 1992 elections that pitted Yitzhak Rabin against Yitzhak Shamir, the two left-wing Zionist parties – Labor and Meretz – won 56 seats in the Knesset. This time they won four. Peace dreams shattered by relentless terror over the last 30 years are largely responsible. Life, thankfully, returns to normal after the attacks, but the effects endure and come out in how people vote.

No one should be surprised. To understand Israel, to understand so much of what it does, how it votes, and how it acts, is to understand the effect terror has on the psyche of those Jews who dwell in Zion.