Pointing fingers won’t keep Israel safe - opinion

Throwing mud at one another is not going to save lives or deal with a problem that has long plagued Israel.

 NATIONAL SECURITY Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to the media before a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NATIONAL SECURITY Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to the media before a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Last November 1 – during the recent election – 41.5% of voters in Sderot cast a ballot for Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu. Another 24.5% voted for the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Add to that the 12% who voted for Shas, and you have a total of 78% of the city’s voters who supported the right-wing and religious parties that make up the majority of the current coalition.

It was an interesting outcome considering that in the previous year – when Naftali Bennett was prime minister – only a handful of rockets had been fired into Israel. From June 2021 until 2022, for example, a total of 15 rockets were fired from Gaza. On one day this week, there were more than 100 launches.

Did the voters in Sderot – the ones who probably suffer the most from the Gaza rocket fire – not know this statistic ahead of the November election? Were they not aware? They might have been, but numbers and statistics are not what get people to vote. Elections – in this country at least – are more of an emotional experience.

It is worth thinking about these stats though, and looking back at the way some members of the current government spoke just a few months ago when they were in the opposition. Take National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir as an example. When there were terrorist attacks last year, Ben-Gvir said that Bennett and Lapid had failed as leaders and needed to “go home.” When there were rockets from Gaza, Ben-Gvir said that for every rocket from Gaza, Israel needs to fire 50 back.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had a similar message not that long ago. The Bennett-Lapid government, he said at the time, was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood because of the inclusion of Ra’am in the coalition. “Our enemies are suddenly not afraid, they feel your weakness and uselessness,” Netanyahu said just last May.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu holds a news conference in Tel Aviv, last Monday (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu holds a news conference in Tel Aviv, last Monday (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

And then there was Bennett himself who is currently out of politics but could not help himself from putting out a statement on Tuesday, blasting the government for the rocket fire from Gaza, and reminding everyone of the small number of rockets launched during his year in office in comparison to the larger number on Tuesday night. “The Netanyahu government ignored rocket fire from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza so what is the surprise that the enemy continues to attack,” he wrote.

All sides of political spectrum attacking each other to play themselves up

Yair Lapid, Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu and Bennett all made comments designed to do one thing – undermine a political adversary while playing up themselves. And while this might be effective in building up political support among their constituencies, does it really help Israel? Is this really helpful at a time when the country might be heading into a wider conflict?

DOING SO also ignores the most important demographic at a time like this – the Israelis who are being attacked and have to run into bomb shelters with their children in the middle of the night.

When they hear sirens, these Israelis don’t care which politician saw fewer rockets during their term in office. What they want is security and that is what they should expect the politicians to be focused on achieving.

If only the situation were that simple. When thinking about Gaza, the question that consecutive governments have failed to answer is – what do they really want to see happen?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious – Israel wants quiet and security for its people. On the other hand, we know what Israel does not want – a ground invasion that would lead to the takeover of the territory by the IDF and the need to manage the daily lives of Gaza’s three million residents.

Between those two extremes, there is a middle path that constantly evolves and will sometimes include military strikes, and other times civilian measures, like allowing Palestinians from Gaza into Israel to work. It will sometimes include a harsh response and sometimes – for reasons that often need to be kept from the public – it will include a version of containment.

What it will not include is the firing of 50 rockets in response to a single rocket as Ben-Gvir recommended, or launching a large-scale invasion just because the Otzma Yehudit leader has threatened – as he did on Wednesday – to quit the government.

What Ben-Gvir should keep in mind is that Netanyahu is not one to fall for such tactics. While Netanyahu is willing to go to great lengths to ensure his government’s survival, he will not do something that will risk dragging Israel into a 50-day conflict in Gaza (like what happened in the summer of 2014) just because Ben-Gvir is making threats.

Ben-Gvir will have to realize that the threats will run out at some point and Netanyahu will call his bluff. Last month he threatened to quit because of the suspension of the legislation of the judicial reform and received approval to establish his own national guard. It has just been a month and again he is threatening to quit the government.

What he should keep in mind, is there is no one more experienced in dealing with Gaza than Netanyahu. As prime minister, he oversaw four large-scale operations in Gaza – Pillar of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014), Black Belt (2019), Guardian of the Walls (2021) – as well as multiple single-day clashes during his different terms in office. He knows when an operation is needed and when one is not.

It is also impossible to ignore the bigger picture and take into account the last 75 years. When doing so, there is little point questioning the fact that the country – from a military perspective – is the strongest it has ever been. While terrorism unfortunately continues – it sadly will likely always be part of the Israel story – there is no military today on the country’s borders with the ability to conquer territory. Keeping the situation this way is not easy, and while politicians will continue to use scare tactics to gain votes, this reality should provide some desperately needed context.

SPEAKING ABOUT the differences between governments, here is another problem that some politicians have decided to weaponize when, in reality, it does not distinguish between who is in office. The issue: growing lawlessness in the country and particularly the rising murder rate in the Israeli-Arab sector.

In 2022, there were 104 murders in the sector, more than three times the number of murders in the Jewish sector. Who were the prime ministers in 2022? Bennett and Lapid.

And then there is this year. In the span of four months, there have already been more than 69 murders in the Arab sector, putting the country on track to end 2023 with a new record and stain on our rule of law. And who has been the prime minister since the beginning of the year? Netanyahu.

Again, does it do any good to blame one politician over the other? Was the situation good under Bennett and Lapid? Is it better under Netanyahu? We know the answer by now. Throwing mud at one another is not going to save lives or deal with a problem that has long plagued Israel. In 2017, 72 people were murdered in the Arab sector and in 2018, 75. The number just continues to rise.

What is needed is a real plan. Not slogans, finger pointing or tweets that serve no purpose other than to make someone’s political adversary look bad. This is a problem that crosses party lines and undermines the general rule of law in the country. No one is safe when there are people getting shot in the middle of the day on public streets.

There should be no politics when it comes to making Israel’s streets safe. As of now, if you are an Israeli-Arab, they are not.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.