January 26, 2016 - Palestinian issues revisited

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This week, Alpher discusses why he has had so little discussion on issues related directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for new negotiations recently; whether, even if that’s the case regarding the PLO in the West Bank, we can ignore assessments regarding Hamas and Hezbollah activity there, alongside predictions regarding violence emanating from Gaza, extremist inclinations among the Israeli Arab community, and even a high-level forecast of ISIS activity against Israel; the angry Israeli reaction to US Ambassador Dan Shapiro's statement that Israel exercises a legal double standard in its approach to Israeli settlers as opposed to Palestinians in the West Bank; and whether Israeli-Turkish negotiations regarding normalization of bilateral relations hold out any hope for a better situation in Gaza.

Q. In recent weeks you have barely discussed issues related directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for new negotiations. Why?

A. Essentially, because of the recycled nature of media reports and often contradictory statements related to the conflict. There is lots of “noise” and little by way of genuinely strategic developments.

Here is a sampling of the stale news coming out of Ramallah and Jerusalem:

  • Way back in June 2015, PLO Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke of cancelling the Palestinian Authority, eliminating Palestinian security cooperation with Israel, and cancelling PLO recognition of Israel. President Abbas also spoke of resigning. Remember? Fast forward to early January of this year: after six months of similar pronouncements, Abbas announced yet again that the PLO would officially decide within a week whether it would uphold its contractual relations with Israel.
  • But last week the PA’s head of intelligence bragged about thwarting 200 planned attacks against Israel, and Israeli security officials confirmed that Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank was holding steady. Meanwhile, Abbas declared the status of the PA to be solid. “No one should even dream of its collapse,” he stated.
  • Last week, Abbas also declared a near-term goal of convening a conference to advance the Arab Peace Initiative and in general to appeal yet again to the international community. And he and PM Netanyahu traded accusations that each was avoiding a bilateral meeting with the other. Meanwhile, Israeli government ministers spoke of the need to invest in the economic development of the Palestinian territories as a means of preventing violence.

There is nothing new in any of this. These same statements were made two and five years ago. They appear to reflect a desperate need on the part of both Abbas and Netanyahu to adhere to a shaky and at present violent status quo rather than risk a serious peace process. Nor can the frightening effect on them both of the violent events taking place elsewhere in the Arab Middle East--Iraq, Syria, Sinai, Libya, Yemen--be discounted. Under these circumstances, even a modicum of stability in Israel-West Bank relations is apparently deemed an achievement to be treasured.

 

Q. Perhaps that’s the case regarding the PLO in the West Bank, but can we ignore assessments regarding Hamas and Hezbollah activity there, alongside predictions regarding violence emanating from Gaza, extremist inclinations among the Israeli Arab community, and even a high-level forecast of ISIS activity against Israel?

A. No. These issues are not the “deja vu” of Israel-PA/PLO relations in the West Bank. These are relatively new and worrisome developments that deserve our immediate attention. For one, Israeli security authorities are reporting increased attempts by Hamas and even Lebanon-based Hezbollah to organize terrorist cells, foment violence and even try to topple PLO rule in the West Bank. Then too, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot predicted last week that ISIS would soon train its sights on Jordan and Israel from bases in southern Syria.

The year 2015 may have, according to Eizenkot, been the quietest in Israel-Gaza relations since the 1970s, yet a senior IDF officer briefed residents of the Gaza periphery last week that Hamas had rebuilt its stocks of rockets for attacking Israel and repaired the tunnels that Israel destroyed in the summer of 2014 and that it was again extending them under the border fence and into Israeli territory. Hamas is increasingly planning terrorist attacks in the West Bank precisely because it believes it has restored its capacity to launch a major series of rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip, hence has achieved a level of deterrence against too strong an Israeli reaction.

Finally, President Reuven Rivlin warned last week that among the Israeli Arab population--where, unusually for Israeli presidents, he maintains very close and friendly contacts--“Daesh [ISIS] is already here”  and is exercising a strong attraction among youthful Palestinian citizens of Israel. Note that ISIS took credit, whether credibly or not is almost immaterial to the Israeli Arab youths it is addressing, for the Tel Aviv murders of January 1 by a disgruntled Palestinian citizen of Israel.

 

Q. Still on the West Bank issues, can you analyze the angry Israeli reaction to the argument presented last week by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro to the effect that Israel exercises a legal double standard in its approach to Israeli settlers as opposed to Palestinians in the West Bank?

A. There are multiple layers of Israeli response here. First, on the Israeli left many congratulated Shapiro and agreed with him. Second, many on the political center shrugged and pointed out that Shapiro was stating the obvious: West Bank Arabs are, under international law, subject to Israeli military jurisdiction as an occupied people unless PA law applies to them in areas A and B, whereas settlers come under Israeli law. Similarly, private Palestinian land is subject to a different set of laws than “public” or “crown” lands. Yet this response ignored the real thrust of Shapiro’s remark that “Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities”. In other words, Israel applies military laws to Palestinians in ways that are far more prejudicial regarding their rights than its application of Israeli laws to settlers.

Third, some on both the left and center pointed out the catch implicit in Shapiro’s contention: were Israel to agree to level the playing field and subject everyone in the West Bank to the same set of laws, this would mean either annexing the entire West Bank and awarding Israeli citizenship to all its residents, or withdrawing to the 1967 green line boundary. The US firmly opposes the first option, while in fact neither option is about to be adopted.

Fourth, some, primarily on the Israeli political right, criticized Shapiro for making his remark on the day a settler victim of Palestinian terrorism was being laid to rest. As if 99 percent of Israelis don’t continue to go about their business no matter what tragedy is visiting the West Bank. And as if a conference on Israel’s strategic choices held that day was not the perfect venue for Shapiro’s remarks.

Interestingly, this Monday, a week later, Shapiro actually apologized for his timing. But this gesture almost certainly only added fuel to the fire of the final layer of Israeli reaction--the disgusting allegations by some on the Israeli right that Shapiro is a “Jew boy”, meaning in Israeli parlance (not Nixon’s usage in the Watergate tapes) a Diaspora Jew slavishly serving hostile foreign interests. Martin Indyk, in his days (twice) as ambassador, was subject once or twice to similar epithets. So was Ambassador Dan Kurtzer. So were President Obama’s Jewish aides (in 2009 Netanyahu called them “self-hating Jews”). This reflects the difficulty some Israelis, primarily but not only right-wingers, have in relating to the integrity of Diaspora Jews, particularly those in positions of power in their respective countries who choose not to toe the Israeli line regarding controversial issues. As the Israeli right gains steadily in influence in Israel and criticism of Israel’s West Bank policies grows internationally, including within the American Jewish community, this is a phenomenon to watch.

 

Q. Moving from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, do Israeli-Turkish negotiations regarding normalization of bilateral relations hold out any hope for a better situation there?

A. Definitely for a better economic situation, and that is all for the good. But would such a development “defang” Hamas? Can prosperity neutralize nationalist and Islamist hostility?

Talks between Jerusalem and Ankara are reportedly moving slowly forward. Last week, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced the appointment of a new ambassador to Israel after a five-year disruption in relations--but pointedly did not send him to take up his post. Israel has apologized for the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident (the armed and violent interception of a Turkish aid ship seeking to breach the Gaza naval blockade) and has set aside compensation funds for the Turks killed at the time. Turkey has apparently agreed to drop charges against the Israeli military personnel involved and has bowed to Israel’s demand to expel a leading Hamas figure who had been planning terrorist attacks in the West Bank from his base in Ankara. Last week, in Davos, Netanyahu even granted an interview to a Turkish news agency.

The remaining sticking point is the nature and extent of Israel’s lifting of restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of the Strip. Turkey’s initial negotiating demand, in keeping with President Erdogan’s ideological proximity to Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was that Israel permit completely free access. Israel legitimately fears this would enable Hamas to import strategic weaponry from Iranian and other suppliers. Obviously, a final compromise has not yet been reached.

Here Egypt enters the picture. Egypt maintains a tight blockade on its own border with Gaza and takes even stricter measures against Gaza fishermen in the Mediterranean than does Israel. Egypt is convinced that Islamist extremists tolerated by Hamas in Gaza, and possibly Hamas itself, are collaborating with ISIS elements fighting Egypt in Sinai. Egypt identifies Erdogan with the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension with Hamas. Cairo has alerted Jerusalem that it would not welcome a warming of Israeli-Turkish relations that in any way strengthens Hamas. And while from Israel’s standpoint Israeli-Turkish strategic relations are important, Israeli-Egyptian strategic relations are vital. For what it’s worth, Saudi Arabia is trying to mediate between Turkey and Egypt.

Obviously, no one can logically object to an improvement in Gaza’s economic prospects. We already noted above the support in Israel, including among right-wing circles who oppose Palestinian independence, for an improvement in the West Bank’s economic situation. But here’s the rub. There is an inclination, particularly on the Israeli political right but also among many international observers such as Tony Blair, to believe that an enhanced Palestinian economy, whether in the West Bank or Gaza or even among Palestinian citizens of Israel, improves the chances for peace and stability. Yet there is absolutely nothing in the history of Jewish-Arab relations to support this thesis. As far back as the 1936 Arab revolt and again in the first two intifadas (1987-1992 and 2000-2004), Palestinian violence erupted at times of relative prosperity. “Economic peace”, which incidentally was Netanyahu’s election slogan in 2008-9, may sound good. But the idea that “full stomachs” means acquiescence in occupation (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) or a readiness to abandon Islamist aims regarding the demise of Israel (Hamas in Gaza) exudes more than a whiff of patronizing thinking toward Palestinians on the part of those in Israel and the international community who believe Palestinian prosperity without a political solution means peace and quiet.

One additional comment is in order regarding the prospects of Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Netanyahu and Erdogan really should be able to get along. They have a lot in common: the appeal to the basest religious and nationalistic motives, the readiness to bend laws and the inclination to silence human rights, paranoia regarding their political rivals, and fear of their minorities. Egypt’s Sisi could then join the club, which increasingly characterizes that part of the Middle East that is neither declaratively Islamist nor monarchist.

 

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