Today’s murders of four Israelis — via two hatchet- and gun-wielding Palestinians — at a west Jerusalem synagogue, threatens to re-ignite the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Three of the four victims held dual American citizenship; in addition to the murders, at least eight Israelis were wounded. Another report suggests that a Palestinian was also wounded by Israelis in Jerusalem today.
While definitive responsibility isn’t yet clear, it appears that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) may have been involved in the terror attack. Left-wing secularists who reached their apex in the 1960s, they have since been sidelined by the theocrats of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Regardless, this attack clearly represents a major escalation. The IDF have already undertaken detention operations in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned of a “heavy” response.
Here’s the context to today’s events: In recent weeks, tensions at Jerusalem holy sites have increased dramatically. Of particular note, Palestinian attackers have used cars as weapons in two attacks against Israeli citizens. This strife has two direct causes: religious and political.
On the religious front, Palestinians have been enraged by efforts from elements of the Israeli religious Right to gain prayer rights at the Temple Mount. Central to Judaism’s creation theory, but known in Islam as al-Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount also houses two major Islamic holy sites. One, the al-Aqsa Mosque, is believed by Muslims to be the place from which Mohammed ascended into heaven. Recognizing this sensitivity, the Israeli government allows only Muslims to pray there. However, on October 28, Yehuda Glick, a Jewish activist pushing for greater access, was shot and nearly killed. In a populist fervor, Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum (including President Abbas) welcomed and lauded the attack. In response, Israel restricted access to the site. That escalated tensions substantially, and on Sunday, Netanyahu warned that Abbas’s populist reactions were inciting violence.
That leads to the political level. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu is balancing a coalition of many different viewpoints. And contrary to common assumptions, the Israeli prime minister is actually one of his coalition’s more moderate members. Indeed, last week, following meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Netanyahu agreed to ease Palestinian access controls to al-Haram al-Sharif. Yet this attack now puts Netanyahu in a precarious position. In reaction to today’s murders at a synagogue, officials such as Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s hard-right foreign minister, will push for major military reprisals — possibly against the Fatah leadership of President Abbas. While Israeli intelligence officials advocate a more measured response, the fragility of Netanyahu’s coalition makes him susceptible to pressure. Some military response is inevitable; the question is one of degree. And the immediate political reaction of Abbas and other Palestinians to the synagogue attacks is certainly not helping Netanyahu in this regard. Put simply, it has been catastrophic.
Instead of condemning the murder of Jewish worshippers, Abbas uttered a more general statement: “We condemn the killing of civilians from any side, we condemn the killings of worshipers at the synagogue in Jerusalem and condemn acts of violence no matter their source.” In the same statement, Abbas also called for Israel to end its “invasion” of al-Aqsa and to halt the “incitement” by Israeli ministers. This lack of leadership reflects Abbas’s insecurities. Pressured by recently announced Israeli settlement-construction plans for Jerusalem, politically fearful of Hamas, and facing a resurgence of leftist extremism in the West Bank, Abbas is tempted to play to anti-Israeli populists. But while playing to the crowd is tempting, it’s also a terrible mistake; it limits Netanyahu’s ability to put forth a more measured response. Hamas, of course, understands Abbas’s fears and will attempt to use this incident to force him toward extremism.
It will take a great deal of individual leadership from Netanyahu and Abbas to confront the murderers while avoiding new conflagration. Unfortunately, having recently called Netanyahu “a chickens***,” the Obama administration has incinerated much of its credibility in Israel. Now, with Hamas and other blood-lusting Islamic terrorists stoking the fire, the momentum is clearly toward escalation.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.