A Familiar Script in Israel Might Have a New Ending

Extremists are trying to break the fragile but growing ties between the country’s Arabs and Jews.

Israeli police officers carry the coffin for their slain colleague.
Ariel Schalit / AP

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On Tuesday night, Israel was shocked by a terrorist shooting spree that left five dead. Less than 24 hours after the attack, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, insinuated that Arabs in the country were collectively responsible for it. “We must restore peace and security to Israeli citizens,” he said. “A government dependent on the Islamic movement isn’t doing this and probably isn’t capable of doing this,” he added, referring to Ra’am, the Arab party that sits in the current Israeli coalition.

In actuality, Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, had forcefully condemned the attack, and Netanyahu himself had previously courted Abbas in his own attempt to cobble together a government. But Bibi’s intent was not to reflect reality; it was to execute an old playbook for political advantage.

That traditional script kicks off after a terrorist attack on Israeli civilians. In the past week, Israel has experienced three of these. The first took place in the southern city of Beersheba, claiming the lives of four victims; the second occurred in the northern city of Hadera, claiming two more. Both assaults were perpetrated by Islamic State sympathizers from Israel’s Arab community. But the most recent attack, carried out by a Palestinian from the West Bank, was the most deadly. Footage from the scene in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak shows the gunman methodically mowing down innocents in the street, shooting one man through his car window and murdering a father who shielded his toddler from the bullets.

In the aftermath of such slaughter, Netanyahu’s go-to talking points have long framed terrorism as a uniquely Arab menace, and pushed Israel’s Jews and Arabs into oppositional corners. This Manichaean maneuver implicitly erases the existence of Jewish extremism while explicitly casting the country’s Arabs as a potential fifth column. And what Netanyahu merely implies, his overtly racist allies are happy to openly express.

Bezalel Smotrich is the leader of a far-right alliance of small parties in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. In the past, he has argued for segregating Jews and Arabs in maternity wards and claimed that “illiterate” Arabs were stealing university spots from Jewish applicants. On Tuesday, he descended upon the scene of the attack and immediately addressed the TV cameras. “There is nothing that raises the hopes of the Arabs and the terrorism more than this government,” he said, blithely equating one-fifth of the Israeli population with terrorism.

This script has long worked to the Israeli right’s advantage, but this time, many people are not playing along. For the first time in Israeli history, a governing coalition includes not only Arab ministers, but an Arab party. Following this latest string of attacks, these leaders have advanced an impassioned plea for coexistence and solidarity in the face of violence.

“A heinous and indecent terrorist crime took place in Bnei Brak today, against innocent civilians,” Ra’am’s Abbas declared in a lengthy statement. “We all stand together in the face of a murderous wave of terror, all of us with no differences. The streets of Israel’s cities are crowded with Arab and Jewish citizens, and those who embark on a vicious killing spree do not notice or differentiate between (Jewish) blood and (Arab) blood.” He continued:

Ramadan, Passover and Easter are approaching, and our moral, religious and leadership duty as the successors of the Prophet Abraham and the three religions is to initiate a process of reconciliation and partnership based on the values ​​of religion and belief in God, and in the universal human values ​​that educate for tolerance, peace and the sanctity of human life wherever it is, and of course against hatred, crime and violence.

Esawi Frej, an Arab legislator from Israel’s Meretz party who serves as the government’s minister of regional cooperation, echoed this message. “We cannot forget that all of us, Arabs and Jews, live here together, partners in our lives and our destiny,” he wrote on Twitter. “Today we are also fearful and sad together.”

Israel’s Jewish leaders have sounded similar notes. “Our best weapon against terrorism is the unity of the state of Israel and its citizens,” said Yair Lapid, the country’s foreign minister and the architect of its governing coalition. “The purpose of terrorism is not only to murder innocents, but also to make us hate and be angry with each other. To undermine and dismantle Israeli society from within. To initiate an exchange of accusations that will lead to violence. The terrorists want to see violent riots on Israel’s streets.”

In direct contrast to Netanyahu, Lapid has referred to these recent attacks as the work of “violent extremists,” rather than “Arab extremists,” in keeping with a worldview that seeks to form Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens into a united front against an arsonist minority. Even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the settler leader who is rotating the premiership with Lapid, has come on board. After Tuesday’s violence, he initially invoked the traditional right-wing script and referred to the attacks as a “wave of murderous Arab terror.” But since then, he has switched to speaking simply of a “wave of murderous terror,” including in his official video message to the nation, and reports suggest the change is deliberate.

The shift is also evident in the public grief over the death of Amir Khoury, an Arab policeman who died while confronting the terrorist. “I will not let anyone be hurt; this is why I am a police officer,” he reportedly told his fiancée after the week’s prior terrorist attacks. Interviews with the 32-year-old man’s family have been airing on Israeli television, and the Jewish mayor of Bnei Brak visited and embraced them in their home. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are attending Khoury’s funeral today. The sign on their buses reads Amir Khoury, Hero of Israel.

“He saved many lives, and that comforts me,” his father, Jeries Khoury, said in a wrenching interview broadcast live on Israel’s Channel 13. “There should be peace in the country, and let no more people die. No more people should die.”

Sari Rabinsky, a young Orthodox Jewish mother, was on her apartment’s porch when the terrorist pointed his weapon directly at her and the baby in her arms. That’s when Khoury arrived, engaging the gunman. “The officer saved my wife and baby,” her husband, Kobi, told Israeli TV. “He died sanctifying God’s name.”

This morning, Khoury’s grieving father and fiancée were pictured on the front page of Israel’s widest-circulating paid newspaper, under the headline “The Heart Breaks.”

This outpouring of empathy between Jews and Arabs is anathema to anti-Arab agitators like Smotrich, the far-right parliamentarian. Indeed, if he had his way, Khoury would never have been on the scene in the first place. In October, the lawmaker stood in the Knesset and told its Arab members that they were there “by mistake, because [David] Ben-Gurion,” Israel’s first prime minister, “didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.” Smotrich is trying desperately to force Arabs and Jews back into their corners. Likewise, his political ally in the Knesset, the neo-Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, today sought to provoke further unrest by visiting the Temple Mount, in an attempt to provoke Arabs worshipping at its Al-Aqsa Mosque.

These two trends—greater integration and surging intolerance—might seem at odds, but they are intrinsically linked. Progress provokes backlash. As Jewish-Arab collaboration has grown both within Israel and without in recent years—the week’s attacks coincided with an unprecedented diplomatic summit between Israeli and Arab foreign ministers—extremists have mobilized to sabotage it. The skyrocketing attacks by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank; the shrill, racist incitement in the Knesset by far-right opposition figures such as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir; and now this string of violent murders by Arab extremists in Israel are all part of the same reactionary reflex.

As Abbas put it in his statement responding to Tuesday’s massacre, “It is impossible not to notice extremist groups with interests that insist on harming the fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in the country. We will not allow it.” Or in the words of Esawi Frej, “Something changed in the atmosphere of the country. This tries to stop the change.”

If the past week demonstrates anything, it’s that Israel is indeed changing, but that the change is far from uncontested. As Ramadan and Passover converge, and the calendar moves to a period historically fraught with the potential for unrest, the country faces an inflection point. It has seen these violent scenes before, but it does not have to replay the movie. New characters and dialogue are at its disposal, and the country’s Jews and Arabs may yet write a different ending. “We need time,” Frej said on Wednesday of the fragile alliance being built between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. It’s just not clear if they will get it, or if the extremists will succeed in tearing that alliance apart.