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Benjamin Netanyahu has not even been back in power two months, and already he faces unprecedented, multi-faceted challenges on nearly every front.
From Israeli-Palestinian violence, to protests over his government’s judicial overhaul, to new challenges on the international stage, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has his work cut out for him.
Israeli, Palestinian violence at a 20-year high
Netanyahu took office at the end of what was one of the deadliest years for both Israelis and for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in years. And the cycle has only picked up speed.
At least 60 Palestinians, both militants and civilian, have been killed so far this year according to Palestinian authorities, while at least 14 Israelis (all civilians except for one), have been killed in the same time period – the latest a 27-year-old man shot and killed on a normally calm West Bank road near the Dead Sea.
Two particularly deadly daytime Israeli military raids in the West Bank targeting militants have triggered a series of Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis.
On Sunday two Israeli brothers who live in West Bank settlements were shot “point blank” while sitting in traffic on a road that goes through the Palestinian town of Huwara, in what Israeli officials called “an extremely serious terrorist attack.”
A few hours later, as night fell, Israeli settlers went on a rampage, burning houses, cars, and violently attacking some Palestinians, including shooting and killing a 37-year-old man, in what both Palestinian and Israeli officials say were “revenge attacks” – and which officials on both sides called terrorism.
The Israel Defense Forces sent reinforcements into the West Bank with the Palestinian attacker still at large, while at least eight Israelis were detained in connection to the settlers’ revenge attacks.
All of this happened on the same day Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian and American security officials met in Jordan in an effort to reduce exactly these sort of situations, and bring some sense of calm ahead of the Ramadan and Passover holidays ahead.
But despite a joint communiqué about what steps will be taken, including an Israeli commitment to halt discussion around settlements for several months, some of Netanyahu’s own ministers almost immediately dismissed the summit.
“What happens in Jordan (if it happens) will stay in Jordan,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted.
Thousands in the streets
Despite the worsening security situation, most Israelis are focused on the effects of the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial overhaul, which have led to eight weeks in a row of regular, massive protests across the country.
The most sweeping of these changes would give the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and would fundamentally change how judges are chosen. While Netanyahu and his allies say these changes are sorely needed to help rebalance an elitist court that has sucked in too much authority, critics say it will end the independence of the judiciary. Others say it’s simply a ploy to help Netanyahu out of his ongoing corruption trial – something he vehemently denies.
But despite the regular protests attended by tens of thousands of Israelis – some 160,000 took to the streets this weekend – and pleas from President Isaac Herzog to meet with opposition lawmakers to come to a consensus on the planned overhaul, the legislation has been pushed through its initial stage.
The plan has already led to economic fallout. Several financial institutions, including JP Morgan, have warned of a growing risk of investing in Israel as a result of the judicial changes overhaul. Executives in Israel’s lucrative high tech sector have either already announced or are warning they’re pulling investments as a result.
“We have been called the startup nation. And we basically say, come on, don’t risk it. Foreign investors have voted with their feet in favor of Israel. And they vote with their feet when they are unhappy with the developments. And they express concern, deep concerns,” Jacob Frenkel, former governor of the Bank of Israel, the central bank, told CNN’s Richard Quest last month.
Wiz, a cyber security startup, announced it had raised $300 million on Monday valuing the company at $10 billion – but won’t put any of that money in Israel.
“Unfortunately, due to the legal coup the money raised will not enter Israel,” Wiz CEO Assaf Rappaport said in a statement reported by Reuters. “Our big concern about Israeli high tech is not only about money leaving Israel but also the large amount of money that will no longer enter Israel.”
Government partners ‘have him over a barrel’
Most of the controversies surrounding Netanyahu are exacerbated by his governing partners – the most right-wing government in Israeli history, says Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer.
“I think this is the least Netanyahu has ever been in control as a prime minister. He’s basically not running his government, his government is being run by the coalition partners who have him over a barrel,” said Pfeffer, who is also a correspondent for The Economist and Haaretz. “He has no option… he has no alternative coalition.”
Netanyahu’s ministers have occasionally undercut their own government’s actions.
After the summit in Aqaba, Finance Minister and settler leader Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: “I have no idea what they talked about or didn’t talk about in Jordan. I heard about this unnecessary conference from the media just like you. But one thing I do know: there will not be a freeze on settlement building and development, not even for one day (this is under my authority). The IDF will continue to act to counter terrorism in all areas of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] without any limitations (we will reaffirm this in the cabinet). It’s very simple.”
It’s also Netanyahu’s coalition partners who are refusing to bend on the judicial overhaul plans, Pfeffer believes.
His coalition is saying “No way, we’re not going to let up – we have this opportunity once in a state’s lifetime. And we want to drastically reduce the power of the Supreme Court,” Pfeffer said. “Netanyahu is not running the show on this.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his government face increasing international pressure from allies, notably the United States, which has criticized settlement expansion and some of Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank. Even President Joe Biden has gotten personally involved by calling for consensus on the judicial reforms, a rare presidential incursion into domestic Israeli politics.
“We’ve never had this kind of differences between Jerusalem and Washington, it’s always been over the Palestinian issue. It’s been over the Iran issue. It’s never been about the way the Israeli government is legislating on a democratic agenda. And this is the first time that we’ve ever seen a president almost openly rebuke an Israeli prime minister over such matters,” Pfeffer said.
Netanyahu wouldn’t choose these battles, Pfeffer said, arguing that he doesn’t want to be in the position of “having the entire Israeli business community, the security establishment, the media, and increasingly, the international community” questioning his government.
But, Pfeffer says, he has no other choice if he wants to stay in power.