Flag March in East Jerusalem poses a threat to democracy

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No decision has yet been made on whether the new government will be sworn in this week or next, but it’s threatened by developments on the security front.

The police, despite the warnings of other security agencies, haven’t yet announced the route of Thursday’s right-wing Flag March through Jerusalem. And the Knesset Guard, in consultation with the Shin Bet security service, is beefing up its protection of Yamina party lawmakers, who are receiving death threats.

The organizers of this week’s Flag March, members of the Religious Zionism party, say it’s a routine political act that is protected by the right to freedom of expression. But their insistence on marching through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter reveals their true intention. They are trying to throw a lit match into the gasoline fumes accumulating over Jerusalem.

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The Biden administration is increasingly worried about the situation in Jerusalem and the possibility that an escalation there could drag Israel and Hamas into renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip, just as happened almost a month ago. This concern was raised in every conversation Defense Minister Benny Gantz had in Washington last week.

After consulting Saturday night with senior Israeli defense officials, Gantz called for altering the march’s route. On Sunday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai conducted his own situation assessment with senior police officers, including from the Jerusalem District.

A police car drives through a bloc of marchers during Jerusalem’s Flag March, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Political sources said that because the security situation has returned to normal, the decision on whether to allow the march and what route it should take rests with the police. Defense sources added that they think Shabtai knows the right decision would be to keep the marchers away from the Muslim Quarter and to announce this immediately.

Meanwhile, police are still using force in East Jerusalem, fanning tensions. On Friday, they violently arrested an Al Jazeera reporter during a demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood; she was treated later in hospital for a broken hand.

On Sunday, a prominent Palestinian activist from the neighborhood was detained by police for a few hours. She has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, where she frequently reports on events in Jerusalem.

Muna El-Kurd on one of her Instagram posts Credit: צילום מסך

Defense officials say the situation in the Gaza Strip remains very fragile, and that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is looking for an excuse for renewed escalation and might find it in events in Jerusalem. To Hamas, its ability to seize the leadership of the struggle in Jerusalem was one of its biggest achievements during last month’s violence. The temptation to continue it is therefore quite substantial.

Israel is still trying to impose new arrangements on Hamas following the announcement of a cease-fire, including requiring Qatari money to be transferred to Gaza exclusively via the Palestinian Authority. Hamas opposes this.

Hamas is also worried by Israeli steps to reduce the flow of goods through its border with Gaza and its attempt to tie any easing of the blockade to progress on a deal for the return of Israeli captives and MIAs in the territory. An Israeli security source said Sunday that the chances of a new escalation in Gaza are “50-50.”

Consequently, a pincer movement has been created, at least partly intentionally. On one hand, there’s the violence in Jerusalem and the growing tension in Gaza. On the other, there’s the heavy pressure Yamina lawmakers are under, including threats of violence, and to desert the emerging governing coalition. The result is a clear threat to the completion of the democratic process of forming a government.

Expressing fears publicly

Like Gantz, Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman has also expressed his fears publicly. His explicit press statement Saturday night reads like a letter to a future commission of inquiry.

The Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, in 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Argaman no longer owes anyone anything. His term was supposed to end last month, but he acceded to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request that he stay on for another few months. Nevertheless, his statement to the media did not state the obvious – that the main threat is violence by Netanyahu’s supporters, not his opponents, and that the people encouraging it are members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and other people close to him.

If Netanyahu took Argaman’s warning to heart, it certainly wasn’t evident in his remarks at a meeting of Likud lawmakers Sunday afternoon. The prime minister paid lip service to condemning “incitement and violence by anyone,” but immediately afterward, as usual, complained about the “terrible” things being said “against us, including explicit calls to murder me and my wife.”

Next, he lashed out at journalists, terming them participants in the propaganda machine against him. “You shouldn’t be afraid to give it to them,” he told the lawmakers.

This is an unprecedented statement for an Israeli leader, and someone may yet translate it into assaulting a television reporter. It recalled the poisonous rhetoric regularly heard from some of Netanyahu’s friends, like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

On Sunday, one of Netanyahu’s social media accounts posted a fawning declaration of loyalty to the leader alongside a picture of him on a horse, as if he were Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu is undoubtedly in good company these days.

It remains to be seen whether Argaman’s words will have a cooling effect on the political system. Meanwhile, prominent religious Zionist rabbis – the religious movement, not the party – published a radical letter urging people to do “everything possible” to keep the new government from being sworn in.

Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

One of the signatories, Rabbi Haim Drukman, who has been wondrously adept at staying just on the brink of incitement ever since the run-up to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, explained Sunday that “everything” obviously doesn’t include violence. But once again, the question is whether everyone who reads that letter will necessarily interpret it as Drukman does.

The demonstrations, some of which are taking place outside Yamina lawmakers’ homes, have so far drawn limited attendance. The participants are mainly well-known Netanyahu supporters, not disappointed Yamina voters. In video footage, they can be heard cursing and screaming, but emotions aren’t running nearly as high as during the terror attacks at the height of the Oslo process.

Nevertheless, a clear threat of violence is in the air. Lawmaker Idit Silman was recorded talking worriedly about unknown people who followed her in a car. Four of Yamina’s six remaining lawmakers (Amichai Chikli fled into Netanyahu’s waiting arms and is considering setting up his own party) are walking around with bodyguards.

Since Thursday, party leader Naftali Bennett has been in a sterile compound under tight Shin Bet security. The concern is over his lawmakers. No gun needs to be aimed at them; sometimes, as has happened in the past, throwing a cup of hot tea suffices to send the message.

Much of what happens next will depend on the police’s tactical deployment and their ability to protect any threatened target. For now, they seem to be present at every point of friction and using force.

Argaman used harsh words, but it’s strange that they weren’t accompanied by announcements that people making crude threats on social media had been summoned for questioning. The dismissive responses to his warning are somewhat reminiscent of what happened after one of his predecessors, Carmi Gillon, issued a similar warning in October 1995, just before Rabin was murdered.

Ariel Sharon, who himself flirted with incitement against Rabin, was interviewed at the time by an ultra-Orthodox weekly. He said Gillon’s warning was a deliberate provocation meant to make things harder for government opponents and termed it a Stalinist maneuver. He was proven wrong a few weeks later.

Like Gillon, Argaman isn’t acting out of paranoia, but out of genuine concern. And again, assassination isn’t the only option; there’s a wide range of possible acts of violence.

On the lunatic fringes, things are already heating up. Some of Netanyahu’s diehard supporters are acting like cult members who see reality closing in from every side and are determined to do something to stop it.