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.
Q: What scenarios? What happened? Is US President Biden suddenly demanding that Israel and the West Bank Palestinians enter a peace process that could destabilize one or both?
A: No, not at all. One of the key characteristics of the current situation is the absence of a peace process and the lack of serious international or regional pressure to start one. Further, the Bennet-Lapid team is making impressive progress in the task of repairing Israel’s relations with the Biden administration and its Democratic party base: holding multiple bilateral meetings, pledging ‘no surprises’, quietly consulting regarding the Iran nuclear deal, etc.
So there is no immediate problem here with Washington. Rather, both Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are under pressure from diverse and unconnected external as well as internal opposition actors.
What is striking here is that the fate of the Bennet-Lapid coalition will not affect the Palestinian Authority government under Abbas. Yet Abbas’s fate could directly affect that of the government of Israel.
Q: Sounds complicated. Let’s start with Bennet’s government, which is not yet three weeks old: what is threatening to destabilize it?
A: First off, annual renewal of the citizenship/family reunification law, which places heavy restrictions on West Bank Palestinians who seek to obtain Israeli citizenship by marrying Palestinian citizens of Israel. The left wing of the Bennet government--Labor and Meretz--along with the coalition’s Arab member Raam, refuse to support the law. So, mischievously, does the Netanyahu-led opposition, which normally would support it and actually created it in the first place but wants to embarrass Bennet in order to portray his government as illegitimate.
At the level of substance, the issue is marginal. Yes, as the security establishment argues, a few terrorists could infiltrate Israel ‘by marriage’. But only around 1000 Israel-West Bank marriages take place in a year, and even without the law Israel’s Ministry of Interior can control Palestinian citizenship requests.
There are only two real issues of substance here. First, it is ludicrous to witness right-wing nationalists, a minority in the Bennet government and the entirety of the opposition--meaning a significant majority of the entire Knesset--making an issue of a handful of marriages. Israel’s right-religious majority is threatening the basic human rights of a handful of Palestinian citizens of Israel, even as it continues to advocate Israel swallowing all or much of the West Bank with as many as 2.5 million Palestinian residents that Israel would have to accommodate.
Note that between 1949 and 1967, Israeli governments administered a family reunification program that witnessed the entry to a demographically much smaller Israel from the (then-Jordanian) West Bank of over 100,000 Palestinians, with no destabilizing demographic or terrorist ramifications.
A second substantive aspect of this issue is that, while a Bennet government defeat here would not constitute loss of a crucial vote of confidence, it is liable to be seen as a harbinger of future parliamentary defeats that portray the government as an incoherent left-center-right-Arab coalition destined to collapse.
Yet another threat to the cohesiveness of the Bennet-Lapid coalition is a confluence of security issues championed by Defense Minister Gantz that are liable to severely embarrass the coalition’s right wing, led by Yamina’s Bennet and New Hope’s Gideon Saar. Gantz, we recall, had a chance to become prime minister through rotation with Netanyahu had Bennet and Lapid not succeeded in forming the current government. Gantz’s party, Blue-White, has more mandates (eight) than either Bennet or Saar. So Gantz feels unfairly marginalized in the new coalition.
Now factor in two burning issues: tension over the Evyatar outpost evacuation, and the demand for a national commission of inquiry regarding the submarine scandal. Evyatar is a wildcat outpost of 50 messianic-nationalist families set up in the midst of West Bank Arab villages during May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, when the IDF’s attention was focused on Hamas in Gaza.
Evyatar’s overnight construction was unauthorized even by the Netanyahu government back in May. Gantz and the IDF insist on dismantling it lest its survival provoke new West Bank tensions (four Palestinians have already died in the violent protests engendered by Evyatar) and complicate Israel’s relations with the Arab world, the US and the EU. The outpost’s removal is almost certain to provoke settler violence aimed at IDF soldiers, with political ramifications for a coalition that comprises a number of rightist sympathizers with the settlers.
Gantz will be caught in the middle. He is already at odds with Bennet over his demand for a national commission of inquiry to look into a scandal of bribes and corruption concerning a major submarine order placed with Germany by a previous Netanyahu government. Bennet wants to postpone this investigation; he just succeeded in creating a controversial commission of inquiry into the April 30 Meron disaster that left 45 ultra-Orthodox men dead, and does not want to deal with a new one.
Gantz, visibly unhappy with his status, is championing the two popular issues of Evyatar and a submarine inquiry in the face of recalcitrant right-wingers in the Bennet-Lapid coalition. Gantz’s reaction to rejection could seriously destabilize this already tenuous coalition with its paper-thin majority.
Q: And the Palestinian Authority? What is threatening Abu Mazen with destabilization?
A: Almost everything. And Abbas has only himself to blame. West Bank unrest was triggered by Abbas’s cancellation of Palestinian elections on April 30, which in turn helped catalyze another Hamas-Israel war in May. Both events dramatically boosted Hamas’s popularity among West Bank Palestinians and devastated Abbas’s standing. A June poll by the highly reputable PSR institute in Ramallah indicates that, were an election to be held today in the West Bank, Hamas would replace Abbas’s Fateh.
But Abbas is still in power some 16 years after being elected and 12 years after his term expired. His security forces, bolstered by cooperation with Israel and the United States, ensure that protest demonstrations are suppressed violently when deemed necessary. And not only demonstrations. Last week Nizar Banat, a blogger critical of Abbas, was dragged from his house in Hebron and brutally murdered by PA security forces. That provoked new street demonstrations and new acts of violent suppression by Abbas’s forces.
Abbas cancelled elections last April precisely because he feared losing them to Hamas. The downward spiral in his public credibility among West Bank Palestinians ever since has placed him in a frightening position. There is no lack of Palestinian serving and former security officials located in the West Bank and exiled elsewhere in the Arab world who might be tempted to ‘rescue’ Palestinians from both an aging, failed leader and an energized Islamist Hamas.
Q: If Abu Mazen is removed from power, how would this affect Israel and the current government?
A: This is the worst of all the destabilizing scenarios in Ramallah and Jerusalem that we can imagine. Actually, not one but several scenarios must be considered. While one possibility is peaceful removal of Abbas and his replacement by a ‘loyal’ contender like Jibril Rajoub, fighting is also possible among pro-Fateh factions, and between them and Hamas. IDF armed intervention might be considered if Hamas appears poised to seize power in all or part of the territory and/or if the Palestinian Authority appears on the brink of collapse due to popular pressure and escalating in-fighting.
Not only does Israel have no easy solution to Abbas’s removal or even to his current drastic loss of popularity. Almost any of these scenarios involving destabilization on the West Bank is liable to place Mansour Abbas’s Raam party in an untenable position vis-a-vis the Bennet-Lapid coalition it supports. It would be hard put to tolerate violence involving Israel and West Bank Palestinians, or direct Israeli intervention in Palestinian Authority leadership affairs. With Raam defecting, the Netanyahu-led opposition would seek a no-confidence vote that could topple the coalition.
What happens if because of widespread unrest the IDF finds itself compelled, for the first time since 1994, to rule all of the West Bank? There would be no need for discussion (see above) of a citizenship/family reunification law to remind Israelis and West Bank Palestinians that they are sliding collectively down a slippery slope toward an ugly, violent binational political reality.