Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the analysis of the shared characteristics of the Sarona and Orlando terrorist attacks; the additional unique elements of the Sarona attack of June 8 that seem to have made it so traumatic; and what Netanyahu's fourth meeting in a year with President Putin, together with the fact that he met only once with President Obama during this time tells us about Netanyahu’s strategic world view.
Indeed, these attacks point to and appear to characterize an alarming new phenomenon, one seen throughout the stabbings of the past half year in Israel, and in the US in the San Bernardino attack of last December: the jihadist organizations are capable of inspiring individual, “unaffiliated” attacks without actually recruiting. As ISIS steadily loses ground in the Levant, its capacity to generate seemingly spontaneous terrorism in distant places provides it with a new dimension of jihadist activity.
Something similar may be happening with the Palestinian organizations. As Jordanian columnist Oraib al-Rantawi commented last Friday, “Whereas they previously used to compete with each other in ‘declaring their responsibility’ for one attack or another, the Palestinian factions these days . . . . confine themselves to issuing some statement on the web or sending a statement to a pre-prepared mailing list of ‘friendly’ media, after which their mission is deemed to have been accomplished. . . .” Are we entering an era whereby social media generate “virtual” organizational links to terrorism?
Then too, in both cases the attack appears at least for the moment to have enhanced the political fortunes of the militant political right--Netanyahu/Lieberman in Israel, Trump in the US. In Israel, when Mayor Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv quite justifiably blamed the occupation for the Sarona attack, he was practically shouted down by the political right-wing and its very verbal supporters. But this may be a very temporary effect: Israel does not face elections, and while election results in Israel have definitely been pushed to the right by proximate terror attacks and while in general Israeli politics is heavily affected by security issues, this tends not to be the case in the US. There, with an election five months away, domestic social and economic issues tend to be more influential and Donald Trump’s “I told you so” message following Orlando could be long forgotten by November.
Finally, Huldai pointed to the real difference between the two attacks. Sarona is part and parcel of Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Orlando calls for different terms of reference: gun control in the US and Islam’s unresolved issues with the West in general and with the LGBT world in particular.
Second, unlike the knifings and car run-over attacks of the past six months, this attack featured live fire. On the other hand, the “Carlo” submachine guns used by the shooters were so primitive (they are an amateur machine-shop copy of the Swedish Carl Gustav, which used to be standard issue in the Egyptian Army) that they jammed quickly, thereby saving many lives. One of the shooters can be seen in the restaurant’s closed-circuit video throwing his jammed weapon down in disgust.
Incidentally, “cold” weapon attacks (e.g., knives) have been in steady decline the past two months, as has (according to a reliable opinion poll) popular Palestinian support for them. On the other hand, a majority of Palestinians continues to believe that if the current, declining low-level intifada develops into an armed intifada this would serve national aims better than negotiations with Israel, which are seen by a clear majority as useless. Here it is entirely unclear whether the Sarona incident was the opening act in a new round of more violent attacks on Israelis. In contrast, in the US it seems reasonable to predict that anti-Muslim rhetoric and the ongoing availability of guns, coupled with ISIS’s on-line incitement, will generate more incidents like San Bernardino and Orlando.
Third I was pleased to hear, in taped exchanges over the body of the shooter who was wounded by a security guard, that rabble-rousing cries for the guard to “put a bullet in his head” were ignored. Perhaps the lesson regarding purity of arms from the Hebron execution incident some two months ago has been absorbed here and there.
Fourth, this incident provided Avigdor Lieberman’s first challenge as minister of defense. In keeping with the image of maturity and responsibility he seeks to project, Lieberman responded to the Sarona attack relatively non-belligerently, with minimal closures and road-barriers and maximum detective work. He appears to have adopted the IDF’s argument that collective punishment should be avoided to the greatest extent possible and economic and political incentives maximized. In any case PM Netanyahu, perhaps mindful of Lieberman’s loudmouth reputation, virtually monopolized the declarative leadership role in the wake of the attack.