October 19, 2015 - The escalation of violence and "Intifada lite?"



This week, Alpher discusses whether the new intifada that is apparently developing has any symbolic significance in regard to the 20 year anniversary of the Rabin assassination; is the fact that Netanyahu’s government is building walls and imposing partial closures around Jerusalem’s outlying Arab neighborhoods a kind of re-dividing of Jerusalem and couldn’t this be a potentially positive step toward peace; if it is fair to say that the fear instilled by previous rounds of intifada violence helped usher in rounds of negotiations and Israeli concessions previously, could that happen again this time; the role of the international community; why the initiative attributed to the French to introduce an international police observer force to the Temple Mount appears to be a hastily conceived non-starter; and how to characterize the violence at this point in time.

Q. We are commemorating 20 years to the Rabin assassination. Does the new intifada that is apparently developing have any symbolic significance in this regard?

A. Rabin, who launched the Oslo process and successfully shepherded Israel through a tough time of terrorist attacks, established the prototype of the security dove: the tough, patriotic ex-general who recognizes the evils of occupation and tries to do something about them. Because of his security reputation he is able to win elections on a dovish platform. Ehud Barak fit this profile, too. Alternatively, Ariel Sharon, elected on a hawkish platform, then turns around and executes a dovish act (the withdrawal from Gaza) and succeeds in galvanizing public support precisely because of his security background.

Barak was the least successful of the three because he had fewer political and “people” skills than either Rabin or Sharon. On the other hand, it is only fair to acknowledge that at the time of Rabin’s assassination there was no certainty that the Oslo process would continue successfully. By the same token, Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has delivered no fewer than three mini-wars in the ensuing years, thereby deterring his successors, and the public, from contemplating additional withdrawals despite the demographic and political payoff they promise.

Still, the security doves understood the need to take radical action in order to save Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Today, after three weeks of constantly evolving but un-diminishing violence, it is safe to say that across the Israeli political spectrum there is no security dove around to bail us out. Prime Minister Netanyahu, a self-described expert on terrorism who specializes in political survival, has once again been revealed as having no strategy for dealing with the situation, only tactics: tough talk and tough police-style measures.


Q. Hold on. Netanyahu’s government is building walls and imposing partial closures around Jerusalem’s outlying Arab neighborhoods: isn’t Netanyahu re-dividing Jerusalem and couldn’t this be a potentially positive step toward peace?

A. Absolutely not, despite the wishful thinking of some in the Israeli peace camp. The concept behind the current steps to isolate outlying Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem like Jebel Mukaber is not to free them of Israeli rule and deliver them to the Palestinian Authority but rather to keep them in Jerusalem under some sort of quasi-apartheid status.

The same can be said for deploying IDF units inside Jerusalem. This wave of violence is moving us deeper into a situation whereby, because the enemy is “internal” and comprises Arabs from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel itself, IDF and Israel Police duties become conflated. This is another apparent characteristic of an apartheid approach. The presence of soldiers is required both to boost public morale and self-confidence--it turns out the police are not numerous enough to do that in the face of sporadic and spontaneous knife attacks--and to administer the closure arrangements, since the IDF has far more closure experience from the West Bank occupation.


Q. But isn’t it fair to say that the fear instilled by previous rounds of intifada violence helped usher in rounds of negotiations and Israeli concessions? Could that happen again this time?

A. True, the first intifada led to the Oslo talks and the second intifada led to Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But in the eyes of most of the Israeli public, both of those steps failed and should not be repeated. Netanyahu’s approach has been one of endorsing a two-state solution while in practice expanding settlements, elaborating a narrow nationalist agenda and “managing” the conflict. If the current violence ultimately obliges him to acknowledge, however tacitly, that that approach has failed, he is not likely to endorse the ostensibly “failed” strategies of two-state negotiations or unilateral withdrawal.

Indeed, he might be pushed by his colleagues from the far right to move in the opposite direction, toward some form of partial annexation as a “deterrent punishment.” When his closest ministerial associate, Yuval Steinitz, says Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is “worse than Hitler” (and worse than Arafat, for whatever that’s worth), Netanyahu can hardly be described as moving toward compromise and conciliation.

At any rate, we are still far from new strategic departures. Netanyahu appears to believe that with the right mix of force and tough rhetoric he will succeed in “managing” this intifada too. Having removed the troublemakers (temporarily?) from the Temple Mount, he believes no further Israeli gestures or compromises are required.


Q. Whether Netanyahu likes it or not, the international community is beginning to intervene. US Secretary of State Kerry will meet this week with Netanyahu and probably with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And the UN Security Council is taking on the issue.

A. At the time of writing, Kerry was not able to persuade the unpredictable Abbas to meet him together with Netanyahu. If Kerry hopes to accomplish anything he must overcome two significant constraints.

First, he is dealing with two weak leaders who are in many ways prisoners of both their rhetoric and their more extreme supporters. Abbas knows the Palestinian “street” is angry and militant; he pays it extremist lip service by inciting to more violence even as he instructs his security forces to cooperate with Israel. His age (80) is beginning to show, his mandate ran out long ago, and his status as Palestinian leader is being challenged.

Netanyahu willingly elected just a few months ago to create an extreme right-wing coalition and knows his political future is in its hands and those of the extremist Likud rank-and-file. Sharon under similar circumstances dumped the Likud and set up a centrist party, Kadima. Netanyahu almost certainly doesn’t have the political courage to do so—or, for that matter, even to entice the centrist opposition, Labor and/or Yesh Atid, into his coalition with ironclad guarantees to really and truly move his strategy to the center as well.

Second, Kerry finds himself representing an administration that is widely perceived in the Sunni Arab world and in Israel as weak and vacillating in the face of a Russian challenge, a resurgent Iran and un-resolvable security and governance problems in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under these circumstances, how much clout can Kerry wield in his talks with Netanyahu and Abbas? He almost certainly cannot wave a “stick”, such as delaying Israel’s post-Iran-deal military compensation package, in his dealings with Netanyahu. Note how Netanyahu blithely rebuffed, without fear of any sort of retribution, a recent Quartet (US, UN, EU, Russia) request to come to the region and try to mitigate the violence.

As for the Security Council, here too the administration, having already backed away from rhetoric describing the violence that Netanyahu and his supporters found too balanced, apparently does not want to antagonize Israel and back a resolution with “teeth”. An initiative attributed to the French to introduce an international police observer force to the Temple Mount appears to be a hastily conceived non-starter.


Q. Why hastily conceived? What’s wrong with the idea?

A. The only way any step toward internationalization in Jerusalem can succeed is if all three concerned parties—Israel, the PA and Jordan with its special responsibility for the holy places—accept the idea and agree to work with the UN force. This has been the history of international forces since the conflict began in 1948: they only work and constitute a confidence and security multiplier when they are “icing on the cake”, the cake being some sort of cooperative agreement (peace, armistice, ceasefire, a negotiating agenda) between the opposing parties.

Netanyahu has already rejected the idea attributed to the French. Abbas, in keeping with Palestinian cultivation of “victim” and “underdog” status, can be expected to accept any third-party role. For its part, Jordan has already been assigned that role, in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and accordingly it is probably the only conceivably acceptable third party, if indeed a constructive role could be defined for it and King Abdullah II is willing to enter the fray.


Q. Let’s conclude as we did last week: how would you characterize the violence at this point in time?

A. The violence is apparently becoming less spontaneous and individual and more sophisticated in terms of weaponry and prior planning. Perpetrators appear to be studying and exploiting lacunae in Israeli security provisions. The Beersheva bus station attack of Sunday night illustrates this evolution just as, with the lynching of an innocent Eritrean asylum-seeker mistaken for an Arab attacker, it reflects the growing readiness of unrestrained hotheads inspired by racist right-wing rhetoric and legislative initiatives to adopt vigilante justice against real and imagined enemies.

On the other hand, administrative detentions of extremist West Bank Jewish settlers appear to have had the effect, so far, of preventing “price tag” attacks that would only escalate the violence all around. Having noted this achievement, had the Shin Bet General Security Service been able to solve the vicious arson murder of an entire Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma in late July, and had it been able to persuade Netanyahu to remove Jewish and Muslim extremists from the Temple Mount earlier, we might have avoided this entire round of violence.

Further, radically enhanced security in Jerusalem appears to be working there. But the effect has merely been to send Palestinian attackers elsewhere, most recently to Hebron and Beersheva. Note that all three cities are essentially mixed Arab-Jewish (Beersheva with its large Bedouin outskirts)--an environment where Jewish targets are abundant and Arab attackers blend in.

One striking intra-Arab contrast that stands out is between the Palestinian politicians’ and media’s totally one-sided version of every incident, wherein the knifer is always the victim, and Egyptian and Jordanian pressure on Abbas to find ways to rein in the violence lest it affect their strategic interests at a time of great turmoil in the Arab world. Another such contrast is between the United (Arab) List Knesset faction, which also presents a totally one-sided pro-Palestinian version of events and, here and there, contrary Arab responses “in the field” such as the mayor of Nazareth refusing to join a protest strike and asking United List leader MK Ayman Odeh to leave his city and take his incitement with him because he is bad for business.

Finally, thus far there have been no suicide bombings. And Hamas in Gaza has not initiated massive rocket attacks. That means that, if this can be called an intifada at all, it is an “intifada lite”.