JERUSALEM — Cross-border rocket fire. A nationwide manhunt. Police raids on one of Islam’s holiest sites. With Israel’s crises stacking up, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a country in need of reassurance.
“You know me. I don’t act rashly. I act resolutely and determinedly and above all I act responsibly,” Netanyahu said in a speech Monday night after weeks of turmoil, appealing for unity even as he lashed out as his opponents. “People of Israel, we will repel these threats and we will defeat our enemies. We’ve done so in the past and we’ll do so again.”
Most notable was Netanyahu’s reinstatement of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant — technically sacked two weeks ago, but never relieved of his duties. The saga over Gallant’s status epitomized the chaos of Netanyahu’s sixth term, as he seeks to meet the demands of his far-right coalition without upsetting a security establishment revered by Israelis or losing the public trust.
Gallant’s dismissal came after he made a rare foray into politics, urging Netanyahu in a televised address on March 25 to suspend his contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary. The legislative drive was threatening national security, he argued, spurring a growing number of military reservists to refuse to report for duty.
As hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest his firing and a general strike brought much of Israel to a halt, Netanyahu was forced to delay his bid to remake the courts and held off on finalizing Gallant’s dismissal. So the defense minister continued to serve in a state of limbo, sitting across from Netanyahu on Thursday night as his cabinet met to discuss how it would respond to rocket fire from Lebanon — the most serious cross-border exchange since 2006.
“There were disagreements between us, even serious disagreements on some issues, but I decided to leave the disagreements behind us,” Netanyahu said Monday.
But those disagreements have not gone away, experts said, even if the prime minister sought to put a brave face on a period of unprecedented upheaval. The country’s most intractable political and social issues have exploded to the surface in recent months as Netanyahu’s far-right, religiously conservative coalition partners champion policies that would rewrite the political rules of the nation and worsen conditions for Palestinians, accelerating a decades-long conflict.
Tensions reached new heights last week after police raids on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque sparked retaliatory rocket attacks from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. The murder of three members of a British-Israeli family in the West Bank rocked the nation and the suspected Palestinian gunmen are still at large.
“Simply put: what is the government doing to prevent or reduce these threats to Israel?” commentator Nadav Eyal asked in a column Sunday, a question repeated across Israel’s political spectrum.
The week’s opinion polls also point to a growing disquiet. After 100 days in office, the government’s popularity has plummeted so far that even a majority of voters from the prime minister’s Likud party rate its performance negatively amid growing concerns that Netanyahu cannot, or will not, rein in the most extreme elements of his coalition.
Among the most controversial is Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, whose political rise is intertwined with that of the country’s radical settler movement. “The problem was and remains those who enabled his legitimacy and are now silent in the face of the downfall he represents,” Eyal wrote.
Earlier Monday, Ben Gvir and several other ministers led a crowd of more than 10,000 settlers who marched through the occupied West Bank to the settlement of Evyatar — which is illegal under both international and Israeli law — in a move aimed at pressuring the government into legalizing the outpost.
Police officials had called for the rally to be canceled, Israeli media reported, arguing that it should concentrate resources on responding to the growing tide of domestic security threats.
But the march went ahead as planned. An IDF battalion was assigned to secure the area. Roads were closed. Palestinians shuttered their businesses and stayed at home.
Some of the settlers carried rifles or pistols. “Not bad,” one man with an American accent joked to a friend about his weapon. “It makes you feel like you’re the law, doesn’t it?”
One woman who had joined the march with her family described it as the right of a free and open society. “It’s our country,” she said, declining to share her name with reporters.
In nearby villages, Palestinians watched the march warily on their cellphones. “We thought it would just be about 12 cars, but it’s huge,” said Said Shahrouj, 45, a furniture salesman, as he stared at a photograph of the crowd. “It’s scariest to us because it isn’t just spontaneous lunacy, it’s organized by the government.”
Israel’s government is already facing the greatest political crisis in its domestic history over the judicial overhaul proposal, which would give Netanyahu’s government greater power to handpick judges, possibly including those presiding over his corruption trial. For 14 straight weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have participated in protests. After Netanyahu’s speech on Monday night, where he blamed the opposition for the turmoil, demonstrators were back on the streets.
“The government has the option to stop the dictatorial legislation,” one protest group representing military reservists said in a statement. “Any delay in this matter endangers Israel.”
“Everything we’re in right now is uncharted waters,” said Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military. “To have a situation where there’s a rumbling about who holds the rule of law, that’s something that we don’t have a precedent for.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.