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Israel coalition squeezed by attacks and shock defection

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett’s 10-month-old coalition government is facing its stiffest challenge to date under the combined pressures of a wave of attacks and the shock loss of its parliamentary majority.

Fourteen people have been killed in a spate of Palestinian attacks inside Israeli cities, the most recent in Tel Aviv on April 7, a day after a key lawmaker from Bennett’s party defected to the opposition, erasing the government’s slim one-seat majority. At the weekend, tensions flared after Palestinians and Israeli police clashed around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.

The violence and political crisis are unrelated, but both underscore the challenges the fragile Israeli coalition faces as it battles to hold together, with the real prospect, according to analysts, of snap elections in the near future.

The Bennett-led government unseated long-serving premier Benjamin Netanyahu last June after four successive and largely inconclusive elections between 2019 and 2021.

The coalition comprises eight factions spanning rightwing religious nationalists, pro-peace leftists, centrists and, for the first time in Israeli history, an independent Arab-Israeli Islamist party.

Idit Silman, the coalition whip from Bennett’s rightwing Yamina faction, quit the government this month, declaring that she could “no longer lend a hand to the government’s actions” and to the “damage to . . . Israel’s Jewish character”. As a pretext she cited a recent religious controversy over a court decision allowing unleavened bread into hospitals during the upcoming Passover holiday.

In interviews earlier this month, Bennett blamed Netanyahu and other nationalist politicians and activists for applying “inhuman” pressure on Silman and her family, ultimately leading her to break with the party.

“[Netanyahu’s] proxies simply surrounded her with a megaphone for nine months, they would curse her in front of her children, [call her a] ‘crook, a traitor’ [and] harsher words . . . those people sent people to her children’s teachers to [get them to] speak out against the children at school,” Bennett alleged.

Netanyahu has urged more rightwing legislators to follow Silman’s lead and “come home” and for the Bennett-led government to “go home . . . because you’re weak — weak on Iran, weak on terror”.

Adding to Bennett’s woes, Israel is contending with the most serious escalation in violence for about six years. The shooting in Tel Aviv was the fourth attack in three weeks.

According to Israeli security officials, the escalation is mainly being undertaken by “lone wolves” or small cells with no formal affiliation to established militant groups. The first three attackers were Israeli Palestinians with previous ideological ties to Isis, while the latter two, including the perpetrator of the Tel Aviv attack, were Palestinians from the northern occupied West Bank with only the most tenuous organisational affiliation. All were killed at the scene or subsequently by responding security forces or armed civilians.

“We do not see a direct connection between the attacks in the past few weeks, meaning that there is no one guiding hand to these attacks . . . these are different kinds of terror activities that are happening,” a senior Israeli military official said.

Israeli rescue personnel clean the scene of a fatal shooting attack at a bar in Tel Aviv © Ammar Awad/Reuters

Bennett has vowed to go “on the offensive”, flooding city streets with police officers, doubling the number of Israeli army battalions in the West Bank, and launching a succession of arrest operations primarily into the West Bank city of Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp. Israeli officials claim to have thwarted an additional dozen attacks.

At least 16 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing clashes over the past two weeks by Israeli forces across the West Bank, according to Palestinian health officials and Btselem, an Israeli human rights group.

At the same time, Israeli officials have stressed they are allowing economic, civilian and religious life to continue as usual in most of the West Bank and Jerusalem — especially in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, historically a period of heightened tensions.

Nevertheless, clashes erupted on Friday, the eve of the Jewish Passover holiday, between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli security forces at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. At least 150 Palestinians were reported injured and more than 300 detained.

Palestinian Authority officials denounced what they called Israel’s “brutal assault”, while militant group Hamas warned “Israel will bear responsibility for the outcome”. Similar clashes at the site last year during Ramadan precipitated the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Arab-Israeli Ra’am party, a key coalition ally of the Bennett government, also condemned the Israeli police’s actions.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, said he supported the security forces and decried the “unacceptable riots”, adding: “Israel is committed to freedom of worship for people of all faiths in Jerusalem.”

A touchstone of religious and political tensions, the al-Aqsa mosque compound is referred to in Jewish tradition as the Temple Mount, site of the biblical Jewish temple. Smaller scale clashes resumed on Sunday morning, with Israeli security forces clearing the compound of Palestinian demonstrators as dozens of Israeli ultranationalists visited the grounds.

The precarious security situation has fed into the political crisis, analysts say, making Bennett’s position, and that of his government, even more tenuous.

“The terror attacks increase nationalist fervour, which in turn increase pressure on [the government] from the right, and that creates internal tensions between the rightwing and leftwing parts of the coalition,” said Tal Shalev, senior political correspondent for Walla News.

“Bennett is trying to project ‘business as usual’, but the overriding sentiment in nearly every arena is that he’s losing control. He’s definitely lost control over his own party,” Shalev added. After Silman’s decision to quit, at least two Yamina backbenchers issued their own ultimatums to the premier in an effort to shift government policy rightward.

The loss of a parliamentary majority will not in itself topple the government, analysts said. The Netanyahu-led opposition does not hold a majority either just yet and is awaiting further possible defections, and any move to dissolve parliament and trigger new elections will have to await the return of parliament from a holiday recess next month.

Bennett’s government, which he has in the past termed a “political accident”, may be able to limp along, although its long-term prospects are now severely in doubt. “Even the optimists are talking in terms of a few weeks to a few months,” Shalev said.

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