August 7, 2017 - Netanyahu’s political future, Abbas’s political future, and US input (the Taylor Force Act)

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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 whether with Ari Harow, a former Netanyahu aide who will implicate him in corruption allegations, the clock is finally ticking on Netanyahu's premiership; Mahmoud Abbas's health and political future; where the Taylor Force act comes into play; and how Netanyahu and Abbas exiting office would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace initiatives.

 

Q. Israel’s State Prosecutors now have a state’s witness, Ari Harow, a former Netanyahu aide, who will implicate PM Netanyahu in corruption allegations leading to an indictment. Is the clock finally ticking on Netanyahu’s premiership?

A. Almost certainly. Several more months could pass before an indictment, but already the political scene is rife with end-game scenarios. A poll published Sunday revealed that 51 percent of Israelis do not believe Netanyahu’s response to the corruption allegations and two-thirds believe that if indicted he must resign. While there is technically some controversy as to whether an indictment would require the prime minister to resign, I would assess there is a better than even chance that the Netanyahu era is winding down. Even if he did not resign and sought to spin out the indictment period and stay in office, the coalition would unravel, with one or more of the smaller parties withdrawing to avoid being identified with Netanyahu.

Accordingly, in the weeks and months ahead we are almost certain to witness a number of prominent Likud ministers and ex-ministers--Gideon Saar, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan--polishing their credentials for succeeding Netanyahu. They will argue that a smooth transfer of power is the best way for the Likud to remain at the helm and avoid early elections. Yet early elections could well be the outcome.

Coalition instability is likely to hasten this process, as every minor coalition party exploits Netanyahu’s weakness to push controversial and extreme legislation, knowing the prime minister cannot afford to let them threaten bringing down the government. The ultra-Orthodox will push their bill delegitimizing all but their own conversions. Naftali Bennet will try to annex settlements. Even Likud extremists will get in the act and advance ultra-nationalist legislation targeting the High Court and non-government organizations. Political chaos could ensue.

 

Q. Palestinian Authority and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas has been hospitalized recently more than once. Is he also on the way out?

A. Abbas is well into his ‘80s and is suffering from cardiac problems. He was recently hospitalized for “exhaustion”. While one cannot specify even an approximate timetable for his departure as in Netanyahu’s case, there is a clear sense that Abbas’s days in office are numbered. Here too, a number of serving and former senior Palestinian officials--Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub--seem to be maneuvering to try to succeed him. Another, Saeb Erekat, is facing a lung transplant that apparently removes him from contention. Note that Abbas has not designated a successor, undoubtedly for fear that this would hasten his departure.

Nor can we discount the possibility that Abbas’s departure will precipitate a violent succession crisis. Gaza-based Hamas could attempt a West Bank coup. Dahlan, who was exiled several years ago, could try to activate forces still loyal to him.

 

Q. How does the Taylor Force Act enter the picture?

A. A key US Senate panel just advanced this bill, which would withdraw US financial aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it subsidizes families of Palestinian terrorists--those in jail or those who were killed. Depending on the version of the bill ultimately passed, this would deprive the PA of anywhere between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars annually. This in turn would constitute a deadly blow to a PA government that is already hard put to stay afloat financially.

Financial support for terrorists in Israeli jail and for their families is an extremely popular practice among Palestinians. PA President Abbas cannot risk ceasing the payments in order to continue qualifying for US aid. Over the years the PA has tried to obfuscate the payments by channeling them through non-governmental bodies. But all these subterfuges have run out. Now Abbas may have to live without US aid. A variety of European aid payments (the European Union is the PA’s biggest source of support) will eventually have to follow suit. A bankrupt PA would constitute the final blow to Abbas’s presidency and, worse, to the PA itself. That would be the end result of the Taylor Force Act, however noble its motives.

 

Q. Still, payments to terrorists and their families are intolerable. This incentivizes Palestinian terrorism.

A. Confronted in black and white terms, that is true. But the issue is not nearly that simple because it is full of grey areas.

First, who is a terrorist? In the lone-wolf incidents of recent years in which young Palestinian men and women perpetrated stabbings and car rammings against Israelis, the targets have usually been Israeli soldiers or policemen. Even in the July 14 Temple Mount shooting, the targets were Israeli policemen. One reason Israeli men and women in uniform are targeted is that some attackers are troubled Palestinian youth trying to commit suicide in an “honorable” way by attacking the enemy, knowing people in uniform bear weapons and will respond by shooting to kill.

According to traditional definitions, these attacks against the IDF and Israel Police are acts of war, not terrorism. Terrorism is violence employed against civilians toward a political end, not suicide lunges against soldiers or police. I realize that the term “terrorism” is applied these days to everything from politics to hospital disputes, but that is an abuse of the word. Is the US Senate taking the trouble to distinguish between varieties of attacks for which Palestinians were imprisoned in Israel or killed while attacking Israelis? Taylor Force, for whom the act is sensibly named, was an American civilian stabbed to death in 2016 in Tel Aviv; that was terrorism. But does the US Senate even have an agreed definition of terrorism?

Apropos who is a terrorist, Israel has named public squares for its fighters who prior to 1948 attacked and killed Arab civilians as well as uniformed British soldiers. Yitzhak Shamir, who was implicated in the assassination in Jerusalem in 1948 of Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, a UN peace emissary, later became prime minister of Israel.

This brings us to the well known “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” conundrum. Mahmoud Abbas, who has consistently opposed the use of force by Palestinians, cannot possibly allow himself to comply with a demand to cease subsidizing terrorists because, whether we like it or not, in Palestinian eyes they are all freedom fighters.

Israelis, myself included, don’t like it. Some of the terrorists whose families are rewarded financially by the PA have carried out truly despicable acts of murder against Israeli civilians. Some of the terrorists and their parent organizations, like Hamas, don’t even recognize the distinction between the West Bank and Israel or between Israeli soldiers, settlers and other civilians. Some deliberately targeted settler women, children and the aged. Some captured terrorists from deprived backgrounds have actually claimed they planned their acts to set in motion the process that rewards their families.

Nor is it possible for Israelis who oppose the occupation to seek to penalize financially only terrorists who acted inside sovereign Israel and to argue that attacks on settlers who have taken Palestinian land should not be termed terrorism. What about an attack in the West Bank on an Israeli based in Tel Aviv who traveled there on his way to Jerusalem, using default highway 443 because of heavy traffic on route 1? And didn’t the government of Israel encourage the settlers to live across the green line and subsidize them? Here the nitpicking would be endless.

At the end of the day, the choice for both the US and Israel is whether the justice of penalizing Palestinians for supporting jailed terrorists and their families overrides the obvious danger involved in weakening the Palestinian Authority. It is virtually a given that if the PA collapses, it will not be replaced by Palestinian saints. Rather, it could either collapse into anarchy, thereby obliging the IDF to reoccupy the West Bank, or be replaced by a collection of more extreme Palestinians, perhaps Hamas. Either one of these alternatives will incentivize terrorism against Israelis far more than the existing PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

This is the real choice. It is an ugly and unpleasant one. Accordingly it is incumbent upon the US Congress and the Trump administration to find a way to signal understandable displeasure over the use by the PA of fungible American funds to support terrorism--indeed, over PA support in general for terrorists--yet without weakening the PA and thereby contributing to an even worse situation.

 

Q. Getting back to the likelihood that both Netanyahu and Abbas will no longer be in office, how would this affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace initiatives?

A. There really are no current prospects for peace initiatives. Accordingly, the short-term damage to peace prospects would be nil. We really do not know who would replace either leader, but one could speculate that in the medium and long term the Israeli-Palestinian conflict situation could be worse.

That the Israeli public has become increasingly ultra-nationalist and messianic cannot be blamed just on Netanyahu. His successor could be more extreme or, alternatively, less capable of or interested in restraining Israeli extremists. Nor are the situation in the surrounding Arab world, dysfunction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the predilections of the Trump administration likely to encourage a more dovish Israeli approach.

As for the Palestinians, in the best case we can hope for an extension of the status quo under a new leader who knows Israel well. But that is not likely. As two very astute and experienced Palestinian scholars, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Khalidi, argue in the current New Yorker, “After Abbas, there will be no other truly weighty representative and legitimate Palestinian leadership, and no coherent national movement to sustain it for a long time to come.” Worse would be anarchy or a Hamas takeover, either of which could mean IDF reoccupation.

 

Q. Final thoughts on these approaching upheavals?

A. Two final thoughts. First, last week I expressed concern over the complacency Israel demonstrated at both the tactical military level and the prime ministerial level. That complacency helped enable the entire Temple Mount drama to unfold: police caught by surprise, an embassy security official in Jordan who ignored the existence of an emergency situation, Netanyahu ignoring his own security advisers and going abroad from where decision-making is more difficult. I asked what this means for Israel’s strategic readiness.

Now a similar question has to be asked in view of the corruption allegations brewing against the prime minister. Every serving Israeli prime minister over the past two decades has been implicated in or investigated over corruption charges. A prime minister and a president have served jail sentences alongside a host of additional ministers, mayors, senior politicians and a prime minister’s son. Now the sitting prime minister is in line to be indicted.

How rotten is this system? What does this say about Israeli society? Most important of all, what are the implications for Israel’s strategic resilience?

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