WASHINGTON (JTA) – Ahead of what may be the toughest diplomatic battle of his career, a final bid to kill the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suddenly found himself facing down a terrorist threat — apparently from Jews.
The flow of Iran messaging from the Prime Minister’s Office was interrupted Friday by Netanyahu’s fierce condemnation of a predawn arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma, near Nablus, which killed an 18-month-old boy, Ali Saad Dawabsha.
With anti-extremism rallies throughout the country on Saturday night and an arrest on Monday, the terrorist attack continued to dominate the news cycle well into this week and overshadowed Netanyahu’s appeal through a webcast to U.S. Jews to oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
Factoring into the outrage was the death of a teenager over the weekend from a stabbing attack at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem on July 30.
Jewish groups in the United States called on Israel to more forcefully rein in its Jewish extremists.
The attacks “must be met with determined action to prevent violence, apprehend perpetrators, and hold to account those who engage in incitement,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement.
Similar calls came from the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Orthodox Union.
Extremist Jewish settlers were suspected. Hebrew slogans were spray-painted at the scene, and witnesses reported seeing masked men fleeing toward a nearby settlement. Netanyahu ordered an all-out manhunt to find the killers.
Meir Ettinger, who Israeli authorities believe oversees a Jewish terrorist group, was arrested Monday in the northern Israeli town of Safed. It was not clear whether he is a suspect in the firebombing or is being interrogated for information he might have that could lead to the perpetrators. Ettinger is a grandson of Meir Kahane, the assassinated U.S.-born extremist rabbi.
“We condemn this,” Netanyahu said after a bedside visit with Ali’s 4-year-old brother, Ahmed, who was hospitalized along with his parents for severe burns. “There is zero tolerance for terrorism wherever it comes from, whatever side of the fence it comes from, we have to fight it and fight it together.”
As thousands took part in protests Saturday night against violence and homophobia, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned against a wave of hatred “spreading throughout the land.”
Speaking at a rally in Jerusalem — others were held in Tel Aviv and Haifa — Rivlin said that Israel could no longer afford to downplay violent attacks carried out by Jews.
Shira Banki, 16, died Sunday afternoon at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, where the high school student from Jerusalem had been fighting for her life after being stabbed in the chest and stomach during the city’s gay pride parade.
Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox man from Modiin Ilit in the West Bank, allegedly stabbed six marchers. Schlissel, who is in police custody, had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving 10 years for a similar attack at Jerusalem’s 2005 gay pride parade.
The attacks distracted Netanyahu’s last-ditch attempt to quash the nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has been working overtime to rally Congress to kill the deal within the next two months — the window for legislative action. Netanyahu addressed American Jews in a webcast Tuesday in a bid to fortify opposition to the deal, which one poll showed American Jews supporting by a 48-28 percent margin.
“Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal, or Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal,” Netanyahu said in the 20-minute webcast organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.
In addition to the Iran tangle, Israel faces a likely bid in September by the Palestinians to again seek statehood recognition at the U.N. Security Council. With the backing this time of France, one of the council’s permanent members, they may be closer than ever.
Also looming is the International Criminal Court’s consideration of whether to bring war crimes charges against Israelis involved in last summer’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials were quick to add the Duma arson to their case.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli government’s support for settlements drove the attack and urged the international community to respond.
On Sunday, addressing his Cabinet, Netanyahu accused Palestinians of lionizing their terrorists.
“This is what distinguishes us from our neighbor,” he said. “We deplore and condemn these murderers. We will pursue them to the end. They name public squares after the murderers of children. This distinction cannot be blurred or covered up.”