After the humiliating setback at Al-Aqsa Mosque, it was inevitable that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would retaliate. His move has come sooner than expected with the detention of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic movement in Israel, along with heightened repression of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. In the political jargon of Israel, these vengeful measures are described as a price tag. Such steps have never succeeded in the past and in this instance will, ultimately, prove counterproductive.
Whenever national decision-making is driven by personal interests, the results are often tragic. In Israel, prime ministerial fantasies seem to be driving the political process. With the threat of imprisonment on corruption charges looming large, the embattled Netanyahu is desperate to find a formula that will ensure his political survival.
The crisis in Al-Aqsa Mosque was clearly avoidable, yet the Israeli leader orchestrated it, hoping that it would divert attention from his financial shenanigans. By closing the sanctuary to Muslim worshippers he did, however, cross a red line. Going forward now seems to be just as difficult as retreating.
Netanyahu’s mishandling of the Aqsa crisis and the ongoing fraud investigations have split Israeli public opinion as well as his own Likud Party. On a national level, there have been mass demonstrations in several cities, notably Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and Ashdod, all demanding his resignation.
In fact, a staggering 66 per cent of Israelis believe that the prime minister should resign if indicted in any of the cases now being stacked against him. Gil Shmueli, chair of the Jabotinsky Institute warned, “Whoever lines up behind corruption, seemingly, or defends corruption, has no place in Likud.” Netanyahu, he argued, has corrupted the entire party. “He castrated the institutions of the movement and turned it into a personal service tool.”
When they are not ranting and raving about their leader’s corrupt practices, Likudniks are bemoaning his political weakness. Netanyahu’s decision to remove the metal detectors from Al-Aqsa Mosque and reopen it for the Muslims brought derision and scorn from some sections of the party. They accuse him of going soft on “terror”, a code word for political dissent. It was from within this poisoned atmosphere that calls were made to target Sheikh Raed Salah.
Writing in Haaretz on 25 July under the headline “Israel’s inciter-in-chief”, Moshe Arens, a former Defence Minister and Likud member, claimed, “If there is a single individual responsible for the unrest, the riots and the killings these past two weeks it is Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement.” Arens pointed out that, year after year, Salah had attracted thousands to his mass meetings in his home town of Um Al-Fahm to hear his “battle cry… Al-Aqsa is in danger!” He further noted that the alarm he sounded was heard “far beyond” the confines of Umm Al-Fahm, “among Israel’s Arab citizens, the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria [sic] and Gaza, and throughout the Islamic world.”
For Palestinians in Israel and beyond, the arrest of Salah was yet another shameless attempt to stifle their political activism. There is, however, ample evidence to prove the futility of such methods. Neither the incarceration of political leaders like Marwan Barghouthi and Ahmad Sa’adat nor the assassinations of Abdul Aziz Al-Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmad Yassin have broken the Palestinians’ resistance to Israel’s brutal military occupation of their land.
Desperate circumstances often prompt desperate responses. Israel’s prime minister, like a drowning man, is prepared to clutch at straws. Not only has he stepped up the spiteful policies of house demolition and arbitrary detentions, but he has also begun to stoke tensions with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as Hamas in the Gaza Strip. His recent efforts to pass a new law that would enable him to go to war without the approval of the cabinet has been interpreted widely as a sign of an imminent — and entirely self-imposed — military confrontation.
Of course, beating the drums of war is much easier than actually fighting one. The problem for Netanyahu and those who support him is that despite their lavish supply of state-of-the-art military hardware, the Israel Defence Forces lack the will and brawn to use them effectively. Several recent studies have shown that morale and motivation within Israel’s armed forces are declining year on year with an increasing number of recruits seeking exemption from combat duties on religious grounds. What’s more, in 2016 the most common cause of death among Israeli soldiers was suicide, with 15 of the 41 who died actually killing themselves.
For what its worth, Netanyahu’s price tag for Al-Aqsa is fast turning into another farce. One week after his arrest, no criminal charges have been brought against Sheikh Raed Salah. The extension of his detention highlights the fact that he is the victim of a pathetic attempt to silence him and restrict his political influence. If ever any more were needed, this development unmasks another uncomfortable truth about Israel: it never has been, and never will be, a democracy for all of its citizens.