The prime minister, the sheikh, and the messiah(s)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is astonished and confused, Education Minister Naphtali Bennett is hurt and bewildered. How did it come to this? The present wave of protests and stabbings causing panic and horror in Israel was unexpected. How did an “old piece of shrapnel in the butt” (Bennett’s metaphor for the Palestinians under occupation) become a threat to the heart of the nation? It’s incomprehensible, it just can’t be, it goes against all the appraisals.

True, just before he slammed the door shut behind him, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned them that the third intifada was on the way, but they chuckled to themselves and said “Good riddance.” After all, who do Kerry and US President Barack Obama think they are, daring to warn Israel? They don’t even grasp the fact that the real danger is Iran, and that the Palestinians will get along with Israel just fine if only the Americans and the rest of the world would stop egging them on.

Netanyahu thinks he offered the Palestinians something far better than a tiny failed state: he offered them an “economic peace” that would douse their thirst for independence. And indeed, the patent was effective for a certain time: opinion polls suggested that the Palestinians were not interested in an uprising, and that the 150,000 civil servants constituted a firm base of support for the Palestinian Authority (PA). For PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the security coordination with Israel, based on the persecution of Hamas, is in the Palestinian national interest.

Hamas too has no desire for another round of violence. It is still licking the terrible wounds it received in the last war, not to mention the enormous pressure that Egypt is exerting on it. A Qatari representative is negotiating with Israel, and trucks loaded with fine goods are supposed to ease the hardships of the siege on Gaza. When Abu Mazen has no interest in an intifada, and Hamas doesn’t want war, Netanyahu can rest on the laurels of occupation and turn to critical issues like passing its budget. He can dream of quiet until the next elections, which are some years down the road. The current coalition of 61 Knesset members (out of 120) is not comfortable, but there is no reason why more parties, such as Yitzhak Herzog’s Labor or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, shouldn’t join in the future. The post of Foreign Minister awaits whichever of them jumps in.

This is an ideal situation for Israel’s messianic right wing. It is to be found in the heart of the Likud, not just in Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. Under the patronage of a messianic government, the “price tag” gangs go out into the West Bank to promote the messianic idea by destroying agricultural lands and property, as well as harming Palestinians—even burning a family in its home— if the High Court annoys them. The army operates alongside the settlers, backing them as they spread terror. The army also fulfills the daily tasks of managing the occupation, directing the checkpoints, and indiscriminately firing on civilians. As if all this were not enough, Netanyahu’s ministers undertake strange projects, like trying to incorporate aspects of ancient Hebrew law into legislation or encouraging groups that seek to build the “third temple” on the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Suddenly they make themselves over as enlightened liberals, naming freedom of worship as the basis for the Jews’ right to pray there. They mean to show the world that the Temple Mount is at last “in our hands” (as the Paratroopers said on conquering the place in 1967).

But all the calculations have now been proved wrong. Netanyahu and his partners forgot to consider another factor with an important role in the arena. Till now this factor has not been thought likely to upset the balance. It is not in the occupied territories and it has no Qassam rockets or explosive belts; it merely spreads an ideology. The factor is Sheikh Raed Salah, a citizen of Israel. He is based in Um al-Fahm, his father is a former policeman, and he once served as the town’s mayor. Thus he is very familiar with the Israeli political system. It was this Sheikh Salah who coined the slogan, “Al-Aqsa is in danger” in order to attract supporters. Like its sister slogan on the Israeli right, “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” Salah’s slogan has proven its efficacy.

But these are not just slogans. Each is a kind of code, expressing an ideological and political agenda. It is not by chance that both slogans entered the public arena in the same year, 1996—a formative year for both the Likud and the Islamic Movement. After participating in the incitement that led to Rabin’s assassination a year earlier, Netanyahu campaigned successfully against Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections. In the same campaign, the Islamic Movement decided to take part in elections for the first time. But the Northern Branch of that movement, led by Sheikh Salah, came out against cooperating with the state’s institutions, refused to take part, and split from the rest of the Islamic Movement. 1996 was also the year that Netanyahu opened the tunnel along the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, enflaming the issue of Al-Aqsa. In response, Salah convened the first mass assembly of his new movement in Um al-Fahm’s soccer stadium. Here he voiced the slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger.”

And now after nearly 20 years they meet again. Though Netanyahu insists he has no intention of “disturbing the status quo on the Temple Mount”, he leads a messianic rightwing government that is free of all constraints. “If I am elected to another term in office, no Palestinian state will be established,” he promised in his desperate speech on the evening of Election Day. But Sheikh Salah too is free of all constraints. He left the mayor’s office a long time ago and has become “Sheikh Al-Aqsa”, the most revered persona in Palestine. With the support of Al-Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, he sets the tone. As Netanyahu provides him with endless excuses for friction, Salah grasps every opportunity to retaliate in the same coin. Together they create a primordial world nurtured by messianic visions that threaten to engulf us all.

Let there be no mistake: both leaders are realistic, each keeping a close eye on the civil wars that have rocked the region since the Arab Spring, but each understands reality very differently and reaches conclusions that suit his worldview. In the collapse of Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and in the chaos of Egypt, Netanyahu sees proof that the Palestinian question has ceased to be the focus of the Middle East conflict, that the crumbling Arab world does not constitute a strategic threat to Israel, and that consequently there is no urgent need for peace with the Palestinians. From this he surmises that the occupation is here to stay and that the Palestinians must get used to it.

For Sheikh Salah, the wars in the region are another kind of opportunity. His ideological partners have set up an Islamic state in Mosul in Iraq and in Raqqa in Syria. They are on their way to Darnah in Libya and al-Mulqa in southern Yemen. The West’s ineffective war on ISIS is additional proof that the days of the messiah are drawing near: during a demonstration in front of Al Aqsa, the sheikh’s deputy, Kamal Khatib—before the astonished MKs of Balad (an Arab party)—promised to establish the Islamic Caliphate in Jerusalem after vanquishing the occupation.

In this limited sense, both Netanyahu and Salah are proving themselves to be able leaders. Each is drawing his people along with their various parties and movements. Yair Lapid spreads his racism while standing with Netanyahu in his “war on terror”; Labor’s Herzog makes every effort to outflank Netanyahu on the right, proposing a siege, an iron fist, and even a “regional council” for managing the conflict. The latter, says Herzog, will consist of enlightened regimes like those of General Sisi in Egypt and the royal houses of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But Netanyahu chooses to manage the conflict himself. On the other side, Salah proves that it is he who sets the agenda among Arabs in Israel, exploiting the despair of the Palestinian people on both sides of the Green Line. From Jerusalem to Sakhnin, all Arab parties without exception are dragged after him, while their leaders follow Salah, declaiming, “In spirit, in blood, we will redeem you Al-Aqsa.”

Netanyahu and Salah dominate public discourse. The 30 seats that Netanyahu got during the last elections, a remarkable achievement by itself, were achieved by bashing the Arabs. This is the working premise of every average Israeli politician. If Herzog wants to be prime minister, he too must move rightwards. The same dynamic can be found among Israel’s Arabs. Arab politicians know they only stand to lose voters if they challenge what the Sheikh says. Salah does not participate in the elections, because he and the Salafists believe democracy is heresy, but voters respond to his influence. Arabs have lost all faith in the government and the prime minister. They are certain that everything Netanyahu says is a lie, while everything the Sheikh says is revered. The Prime Minister and the Sheikh have usurped the reasoning powers of their followers, and the two peoples, motivated by contradictory messianic visions, are rushing towards the point of no return.

Since this is the case, Netanyahu has taken recourse to the ultimate wonder-drug by outlawing the Sheikh. He has overcome Fatah and vanquished Hamas, but now an even more extreme threat has appeared, and he is desperately trying to suppress it. History shows that the subjection of Fatah brought Hamas, and the suppression of Hamas led to al-Qaeda; the suppression of Sheikh Salah will bring an even more extreme leader. The response to Jewish messianism is Islamic messianism.

If we do not create an Arab-Jewish democratic front that can tilt the scales away from the messianic agenda, we will descend into an intractable religious war. Netanyahu is leading us there, and that is why we must send him packing. As for Sheikh Salah and his adherents, the best way of neutralizing their influence is to put an end to the occupation, create a real democracy, and ensure equality and social justice for all.

– Translated by Yonatan Preminger

About Yacov Ben Efrat