After the Israel Synagogue Massacre: A New Intifada?

As Israeli PM Netanyahu reacts to the murder of four rabbis in Jerusalem, he lashes out at supposed enemies around the world—and a new Arab uprising takes shape.

JERUSALEM—What next in Israel? Last night was oddly calm in East Jerusalem. I did hear firecrackers and what may have been some gunshots and tear-gas launchers, although the Israeli media isn’t full of anecdotes about violence. Instead, the lead news story as I write this the morning after the synagogue attack is that the government has destroyed the East Jerusalem home of a Palestinian who killed a Jewish mother and her baby in a train station in October, and that the demolition policy is now going to be stepped up.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinians were already at a low point. After this awful attack, they’re sure to get lower. What could lower possibly mean? It means that the leaders on both sides are going to revert to their worst instincts, which will empower extremists in both camps.

Start with Benjamin Netanyahu. He doesn’t exactly see himself as a peacemaker. That may sound like the understatement of the century, and maybe it is. But any Israeli leader is under some pressure to be the historic peacemaker, and there have been moments when Netanyahu has at least had to pretend to act that way.

Forget about that now. He fundamentally sees himself as Israel’s defender against its enemies, and that will intensify. It was astonishing yesterday that he pinned the blame for the attacks on Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader. Abbas has been committed—quite unsuccessfully, but nevertheless committed—to nonviolence. Everyone (well, nearly) here knows this. Yoram Cohen, the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, forcefully contradicted his prime minister yesterday: “Abbas is not interested in terror and is not inciting to terror. He’s not even doing so behind closed doors.” One would think Cohen knows.

Netanyahu surely knows this, too, but it didn’t stop him from lashing out. He also lashed out at, well, the whole world. “I call on all the leaders of countries in the Western world: I want to see outrage over this massacre. I want to see denunciation,” he said at a press conference. It’s not that he’s wrong of course. (And by the way, much outrage has been expressed.) But it’s a question of what and whom he’s reacting against. He sees so many enemies out there.

This week brought news of a major new effort on the part of the European Union to force Israel’s hand on the rapidly growing settlements by introducing a possible broad “menu” of sanctions that, at their most severe, would include things like pressuring European utilities not to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts on large-scale projects. The Israeli right is totally up in arms about this. The EU has said, since Haaretz broke the story, er, well, we have no such plans. But it seems pretty clear that the EU has plans to make such plans, and this issue is going to be pressed in the months ahead.

Netanyahu is also, of course, striking out at President Barack Obama. Washington certainly did express outrage yesterday, but it seems that Netanyahu and the broader Israeli right partly blame the Obama administration for letting this EU gambit happen in the first place. So watch in the coming weeks to see what Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have to say about the EU effort as this develops.

Now let’s consider Abbas. The general rap on him is: reasonably well-intentioned but weak. A situation like the current one is likely to accentuate his weakness. The pro-violence Hamas holds more cards in situations like this than Abbas does, because Abbas is seen to represent the Palestinian middle class and business elites, who hate the occupation to be sure, but disdain violence and just want to get on with the work of building the physical infrastructure of a future state, while Hamas is seen as Netanyahu’s true counterpart, the fist that can match the opposing fist. There are probably a lot of conciliatory things that Abbas would like to say publicly but can’t, because too many within the constituencies to which he must answer just aren’t in the mood.

The backdrop for all this is the increasingly tense situation in East Jerusalem, the provenance of the synagogue attackers and a place where the Arab population is uniquely dispossessed, compared to how things were not all that long ago. About 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, and their relationship to the state is an almost perfect dance of denial. Israel says they can be citizens. But very few even bother to apply, or to vote in municipal elections, because for them, doing so would lend their tacit assent to the humiliation they live with. And Israel knows all this, which makes the state’s offers of citizenship and the franchise meaningless in practice.

On top of that, there are the increasing numbers of Jewish settlers moving into East Jerusalem. You can go stand at any of several promontories surrounding East Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives for example, and look down upon the modest and tightly packed dwellings in the valley below. You will see the occasional defiant Israeli flag popping up from a rooftop, which I’m told you didn’t used to see a few years ago. You will see the ridge where the government plans on building a new military academy (of all things!). You will see the undeveloped valley a bit farther back where the government wants to build thousands more settlers’ homes. Two things you don’t see much of, incidentally: parks and playgrounds.

And that’s where it stands. Will it all lead to the much feared, or much anticipated, “third intifada”? It might. It’s not as if the first two were announced by press release and started on appointed Day X. They were sparked by events. In the aftermath of Tuesday’s hideous attack, such an event seems virtually inevitable. It almost doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just call it bleak.