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Israel and a Third Intifada

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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On Sunday afternoon, immediately before the last of the fall’s Jewish holidays, the newscaster ended his hourly news broadcast not by saying, as is customary, “wishes for a joyous holiday,” but “wishes for a joyous and quiet holiday.” It was a formulation once used commonly, during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2004, but which had faded from use. The desperate wish for quiet has returned to Jerusalem.

There is some debate whether the Third Intifada has come to Israel; regardless of nomenclature, however, no one denies that Israel is facing a new round of terror. Today’s stabbing of a yeshiva student – he was rushed to the hospital, fully conscious, with the assailant’s knife still lodged in his neck – by a 19-year-old Arab resident of East Jerusalem was the day’s first in a long and increasingly frightening series of attacks that began three weeks ago.  This afternoon came a stabbing in Tel Aviv. Later, an Israeli was attacked in Hebron.

The situation is serious enough that yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled his long-scheduled, high-profile trip to Germany, and today,  he ordered police not to allow members of the Knesset to visit the Temple Mount. It was over access to the Mount, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, that the first renewed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians erupted. High profile – and possibly provocative – visits to the Temple Mount by Israeli parliamentarians are the last thing the prime minister needs.

Netanyahu's order not to visit the Temple Mount was a stark reminder of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, a move that many (unfairly) said had provoked the violence that led to the Second Intifada. In truth, Yasser Arafat had planned and encouraged that round of violence long before Sharon’s visit, but many still saw Sharon’s visit as the catalyst. Netanyahu cannot afford a replay.

Netanyahu is in a political bind. For while he cannot afford high-profile provocations, he also cannot afford to alienate his right flank. (His own party staged several protests against him, with Likud members serving as ministers attending.) The right feels that Bibi has not responded with sufficient force to quell this latest violence, while the left accuses him of provoking it by ignoring the Palestinian question. Both may be right.

When Bibi’s right wing expressed outrage at being barred from the Temple Mount, he sought to contain the damage by announcing that the ruling also included Arab members. Yet that infuriated the Muslims in the Israeli government, who vowed to defy the order. Everywhere he turns, Netanyahu has few good options.  

As Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plot their next moves, the violence across the country continues. No high-casualty attacks like the bombings of buses and restaurants emblematic of the Second Intifada have so far occurred. That, too, however, is a mixed blessing. During the Second Intifada, those of us who lived in Jerusalem, which absorbed the brunt of the attacks, hoped to avoid danger by staying away from buses, restaurants, and crowded streets (not that many of those were left). The terrorists wanted numerous casualties – if you were away from crowds, you were probably safe.

No longer. This round of terror is mostly stabbings. They are one-on-one; in some ways, the more secluded you are, the better for the attacker. Most of the assailants of the past few weeks are now in custody; soldiers or armed passersby have shot many others on the spot. That gives potential attackers incentive to find people off the beaten path.

I walk to morning worship each day at about 5:45 a.m. Jerusalem is beautifully quiet that time of day. The sun has yet to rise, the streets are still deserted, and except for the occasional chiming of church bells and the singing of the muezzin from local mosques, there’s nothing to be heard. That brief walk is my thinking time, a few moments of reflection before a busy day begins.

For the past few days, however, I’ve found myself walking more briskly, looking over my shoulder, somewhat discomfited by my solitude on the  street. What was once placidity has turned into danger. I’ve considered driving instead of walking. That is precisely why they call it “terrorism” – the terror is real.

Will this round of violence simply die down? Will it explode into a Third Intifada? To some extent, that depends on what Netanyahu and Abbas do. At the same time, Israelis also know that to some extent, it’s out of the leaders’ control. Arabs are seething, and Jews are afraid.

When an entire population becomes fearful, fury invariably follows. And in this region, that never leads anywhere good. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net