Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israeli settlements, Palestinian NGOs, and US-Israel relations (November 1, 2021)


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: Minister of Defense Benny Gantz recently announced new West Bank settlement construction, then declared six West Bank-based Palestinian human rights NGOs to be terrorist organizations. The US, the EU and the Israeli left are protesting loudly. Why these announcements, and why now

A: Gantz, who was alternate prime minister under Netanyahu, apparently still entertains the ambitious hope to become prime minister by taking advantage of some future coalition crisis. So among a host of rationales for these latest measures, they were a gesture to the political right. Gantz had been taken to task by the right for meeting in August with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and offering him conciliatory gestures like an advance on taxes collected by Israel and legalization of around a thousand new Palestinian homes in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. Prime Minister Bennet, too, needed the settlements and NGO measures in order to fortify his own shaky standing with his right-religious settler base.

Both the centrist Gantz and the far-right Bennet could assess--correctly, it turns out--that the left wing of the coalition, Labor and Meretz, would protest Gantz’s moves loudly but would soon knuckle down and avoid threatening coalition stability over them, if only to avoid being blamed for a crisis that brings Netanyahu back to power. Gantz and Bennet could also depend on the Islamist Raam party to broadly ignore their insult to Palestinian sensibilities because Raam is resolved to concentrate on domestic Israeli Arab issues and is about to take credit for dispersing NIS 30 billion (just under $10 billion) in Israel’s Arab sector.

So one rationale for Gantz’s decisions was politics. Another is almost certainly Bennet’s assessment that, if timed right, this gesture to the coalition’s right-wing base would not bring about any sort of game-changing American protest. The Biden administration is too busy fighting a recalcitrant Congress, a resurgent Trump and its own low approval ratings in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Nor is there any Israeli-Palestinian peace process that the administration can protest that Gantz is damaging.

Then, too, there is a creeping suspicion that Gantz is simply not capable of sophisticated decision-making. There are so many ways he could have done this differently, displaying at least minimal sensitivity to the needs of the injured parties.


Q: For example: could the decision to build new settlement units have been managed differently?

A: Let’s face it: every Israeli coalition for more than 50 years has agreed to new settlement construction. The ‘status quo’ that this coalition is declaratively based on includes settlement housing construction. Plans have already been announced for construction of new neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area, with relatively little objection from Labor and Meretz. And there is a general consensus, shared even in Washington, that settlements built near the old green line pre-1967 armistice line do not necessarily prevent the eventual emergence of a two-state solution--a policy direction Gantz does not appear to rule out. Note that Bennet, during his August visit to Washington, apprised the administration of his intention to build more settlement housing.

But why include in the new settlement housing package not only green-line settlement blocs but a few isolated settlements as well, located deep inside the West Bank where they definitely sabotage lingering hopes for the emergence of a Palestinian state? Why avoid discussing this in advance with Labor and Meretz, the two coalition parties most sensitive to the issue?


Q: And the decision regarding the six human rights NGOs?

A: Gantz argues that funds delivered by European donors to the six NGOs found their way to the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which is widely acknowledged as a terrorist organization. This claim is not totally without foundation. When Gantz bothered to show the evidence to angry Labor and Meretz politicians who had been kept in the dark about his decision, and to American and European officials, their protest against the terrorist label applied by him to the NGOs became more subdued.  

The problem, then, is at least in part with Gantz’s decision-making style and with the sweeping nature of his actual decision. The fallout is reminiscent of the IDF’s destruction, in May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls against Hamas in Gaza, of a Gaza high-rise that housed the offices of the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and additional legitimate media outlets, alongside a Hamas intelligence unit. There were better ways to signal the world that the media were being exploited by Hamas to shelter its operations. IDF spokespersons now acknowledge that destroying the entire building (albeit after evacuating its inhabitants in advance) was a mistake in terms of the disproportionate damage to Israel’s image and its efforts to enlist international backing.

The backdrop to Gantz’s latest decision begins, two years ago, with a PFLP bomb that killed an Israeli civilian who had come to a scenic West Bank spring to bathe. For the sake of arguing this on Gantz’s terms, we shall ignore the fact that the spring had been appropriated by settlers from Palestinians who for generations had used it. The Israeli security establishment, in the course of tracing the bomb to the PFLP, uncovered suspicious personnel and funding links between PFLP terrorists and some or all of the NGOs. Two of the terrorists are currently on trial. Additional evidence pointed to the NGOs as well.

One problematic issue in the NGO banning is the Defense Ministry’s acknowledged reliance on evidence about the Palestinian NGOs that is routinely presented by rightwing Israeli NGOs that have questionable criteria for judging Palestinian human rights and information activities. True, in many cases, organizations like Palestinian Media Watch and NGO Monitor present viable evidence gleaned from the media regarding Palestinian abuse of EU funding to support terrorist aims. But in other cases, their evidence is tainted by their agenda.

Here is a simple example that is repeated, with variations, constantly. On Sunday this week, PMW vilified the new Palestinian embassy in Tunis for displaying a huge wall map of ‘Palestine’ from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean that was guilty of ‘erasing’ Israel. Does PMW not know that Israeli media and government institutions consistently erase the Palestinian Authority from their maps? This sort of information warfare by Palestinian mapmakers may seem to some ‘subversive’, but it is symmetrical. Yet its symmetry is never acknowledged by the Israeli right. This taints the judgment of PMW, NGO Monitor and others. It is fair to suspect that that tainted judgment is reflected in decisions like Gantz’s regarding settlements and Palestinian human rights advocacy groups.

Another issue is the sudden, blanket ban on six ‘terrorist’ NGOs that have until now enjoyed a solid international reputation and working links with Israeli human rights NGOs. As evidence incriminating them accumulated over the past two years, why didn’t Gantz and his ministry issue selective bans, one at a time? Why not single out, as the evidence accumulates, objectionable Palestinian NGO officials held responsible for transferring funds to the PFLP? Why not inform the European donors, one by one? And why could Gantz not inform his coalition partners from the left, well in advance, of what he was contemplating.

As with the Gaza AP building, Gantz used a sledgehammer where tweezers were more appropriate.


Q: The timing and content of Gantz’s announcements appear to reflect considerations that go beyond immediate Israeli-Palestinian relations, or Israeli relations with the US and the EU . . .

A: Here we get into Israeli realpolitik. We have already noted the perceived need to act against Palestinian NGOs and in favor of West Bank settlements in order to keep Bennet’s settler political base happy and hold the coalition together. And we have noted the perception that, because of Biden administration and EU weakness, now would be a good time to enact radical right-wing measures with relative impunity at the international level. These considerations reflect the ugly A-B-Cs of interaction between Israeli coalition politics and the Palestinian issue since 1967.

There appear to be subtler considerations, too, regarding the timing. With the first Israel government budget in three years about to be approved this week or next, thereby seemingly guaranteeing long-term coalition survival, Gantz’s measure may have been intended to exploit coalition discipline before it dissolves into post-budget anarchy.

Perhaps, too, Gantz, Bennet and Foreign Minister Lapid intend to exploit these anti-Palestinian measures as cover to approve the Biden administration’s request to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem that served as an ‘embassy’ to the Palestinian Authority until closed by President Trump back in March 2019. Perhaps Gantz intends to cite his decisions regarding settlement construction and NGO-banning as ‘cover’ for this week’s subsequent decision, understood as ‘anti-settler’ and sure to provoke a right-wing backlash, not to allow private purchases of West Bank land by Jews.


Q: Any personal comments based on your own experience?

A: As a veteran of Israel’s intelligence community, I have the highest respect for the IDF and Shin Bet analysts whose assessments informed Gantz’s decisions. But I am concerned that at some stage in the process, assessments were politicized. And I am concerned that Gantz really did not know how best to utilize the information provided to him.

Then too, as a veteran of Israel’s own NGO community that deals with Palestinian issues (the bitterlemons family of internet publications, 2000-2012), I am painfully aware that both right-wing Israeli governments and the military have not always been objectively fair with Israeli human rights advocates in Israel and the West Bank. It stands to reason that Palestinian human rights groups are treated far less generously.


Q: Bottom line?

A: In the long term, beyond the political drama in Jerusalem, Washington and Brussels over Gantz’s decisions (typically of recent Middle East politics, the Arab states have barely objected), there are ominous negative ramifications. One is the slippery slope down which Israel and the Palestinians are sliding toward a bi-national hell. Gantz just edged Israel a little farther down that slope.

Then too, Israel wants the Biden administration, if and as it reaches a new nuclear agreement with Iran, to make allowances for Israel’s existential threat assessment regarding Iran and its concomitant military needs regarding Iran. Yet Israel just knowingly exploited administration weakness and/or tolerance in moves that have clearly alienated not only key officials but key actors in Congress as well. There is in certain Washington circles considered friendly to Israel a long list of grudges against Jerusalem governments regarding deeds like these, that go far back in time. That list just grew.

Here it behooves us to recall two historical precedents. First, when Yitzhak Rabin wanted to explain his Oslo-process concessions to Yasser Arafat back in 1993-94, he cited the overriding need to end the Palestinian conflict in order to position Israel optimally to deal with Iran. The Bennet government ignores this strategic thinking at its peril.

Second, exactly 30 years ago the Madrid Conference marked a high point in US influence in the Middle East, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War and under the dynamic leadership of President Bush and Secretary of State Baker. In recent years, in sharp contrast, Washington under three presidents appears set on substantively reducing its Middle East profile and presence, though again for solid geo-political reasons. Israel would be foolish to interpret this as a sign of weakness, to be exploited for very ephemeral political gain.