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: Israel is still in the throes of both a coalition crisis and escalation with the Palestinians--as it was two weeks ago when you first wrote about this. So what’s actually new since then?
A: The past two weeks have witnessed escalation in both crises. Much of the backdrop is religious, as Ramadan and Passover (and Easter) overlap. Palestinian riots on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have involved stone-throwing and fireworks-used-as-weapons, obliging Israeli forces to enter al-Aqsa mosque. A few ‘supportive’ rocket rounds were fired from the Gaza Strip. And as if all this were not sufficient, recent days witnessed criminal shooting sprees in a Negev Bedouin town and Palestinian rocket fire from Lebanon.
Temple Mount clashes between Palestinians and Israel Police units have generated criticism of Israel from Arab neighbors near and far, thereby adding yet another dimension to the two crises. The Israeli extreme religious-nationalist right, with the very threat of its highly publicized schemes to pray and even engage in animal sacrifice on the Mount--all blocked by the Bennett government--and its provocative annual ‘Flag March’, this year diverted by Jerusalem Police, provided ample fuel for massive Palestinian “al-Aqsa in in danger” incitement regarding allegedly secret Israeli intentions to change the Temple Mount status quo. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fateh all competed to issue the most incendiary Ramadan messages to the faithful. At one point, IDF troops in the West Bank found themselves willy-nilly protecting a provocative pro-settler Passover march that their commanders had expressly forbidden.
In parallel, the Bennett-Lapid coalition has come closer than ever in its ten-month tenure to collapsing.
Q: That’s the blow-by-blow account. Can you expand on Israel’s tactical approach to handling the violence?
A: The Israeli approach, with its successes and failures, can perhaps best be described in terms of two paradoxes. One concerns Temple Mount Ramadan prayers. Despite a recent spate of lone-wolf terrorist attacks inside Israel, which in an unusual step deployed IDF units to reinforce the police inside Israel’s cities, and despite multiple violent incidents in the West Bank, the security authorities elected to apply a liberal approach. They allowed virtually unlimited Muslim access to the Mount: not just for those aged 50 and older, as in previous years.
Tens of thousands prayed peacefully. But a few hundred young activists, mainly sent or inspired by Hamas but egged on by the Palestinian Authority as well, collected an arsenal of stones inside the mosques and began throwing them at police and at the Wailing Wall Jewish prayer area below.
This drew the Israel Police into the mosques for precisely the violent, smoke-filled ‘photo op’ the Islamists desired. As a consequence, and despite the fact that not a single Palestinian has been killed in the course of these clashes, Israel not only has not earned international credit for permitting mass prayer without restrictions, but has been condemned for the violence by Jordan, Morocco, the Emirates and others in the Muslim world, as well as by Russia.
Unusually, Jordan has even incited: PM Bisher Al-Khasawneh told Parliament in Amman that he “salutes every Palestinian . . . who stones the Zionists who defile the al-Aqsa Mosque while protected by the Israeli occupation government.” Europe and the US expressed ‘concern’ but prevented any condemnation of Israel at the UN Security Council.
Q: And the second paradox?
A: In parallel, in an exercise in ‘economic peace’, Israel has gradually permitted as many as 12,000 day-laborers to enter from Gaza and work in the towns and farms of Israel’s Gaza periphery. The much higher wages these laborers earn in Israel are supposed to provide an incentive for Hamas in Gaza to prevent violent rocket attacks against Israel. Yet inevitably, in response to events in Jerusalem, a few rockets were launched toward Israel. No Israelis were hurt, while some rockets fell inside the Strip, injuring Gazans.
Never mind: in order to project resolve, Bennett’s government responded by closing the Erez Crossing so Gazans could not come to work in Israel. And Hamas, which conveniently blames lesser Gazan Islamist groups for their inept rocket fire against Israel, responded to the Erez closure by threatening to fire its own rockets at Israel.
Ramadan ends at the beginning of May. That will be a relief for Israel’s security community, which seems to be ‘damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t’. But that seems to be the way religious holidays are celebrated in the Middle East.
Q: And Israel’s political community?
A: Luckily for the Bennett-Lapid government, the Knesset is in recess until after May 5, Independence Day. Luckily for Mansour Abbas and his Raam party, too. To express their solidarity with their fellow Palestinians, they have ‘suspended’ their membership in the governing coalition, thereby at least temporarily robbing it of even the 60 MKs it needs to stay afloat. For the moment this protest does not incur serious political consequences for a coalition that Raam does not (yet?) seriously intend to cease supporting.
Bennett responded to Raam’s symbolic protest by announcing that no Jews would be allowed on the Temple Mount for the final ten days of Ramadan. Even though a similar measure is taken for security reasons every Ramadan, this time it looked like Raam had bent the government’s will: yet another case of poor tactical timing. Bennett, who opposes a two-state solution and refuses to talk to the Palestinian leadership, now paradoxically finds himself under attack from his own right wing for bowing to Hamas in both Gaza and Jerusalem and muzzling his own ideological followers.
Q: Ramifications at the regional level?
A: At the regional level, the Bennett government is learning that its inability and unwillingness to engage the Palestinians diplomatically has consequences. And Israel is learning that the determination of growing numbers of National Orthodox Jews to walk on the Temple Mount esplanade and even pray there, thereby openly violating the status quo of more than 50 years, could eventually have end-of-days-type consequences.
Israel got a taste of this last May, during 11 days of violence that engulfed the entire Palestinian community: from Jerusalem to Gaza, from the West Bank to Israel’s mixed towns and cities, from Jordan to South Lebanon. Back then we experienced, at its worst, the slippery slope that ends in a violent binational reality. The real question hovering over the current violence is whether it will get as bad.
True, a dressing down for Israel’s ambassadors in Abu Dhabi, Amman and Moscow is hardly a dire consequence. Even open incitement by the Hashemite Kingdom can be contained if it is rare. But what will happen in these kingdoms and capitals if and when rioting Palestinians are killed on the Temple Mount? If and when Israel starts seriously bombing the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas rockets falling on Tel Aviv? If and when Israel’s growing messianist-nationalist movement does some real damage in Jerusalem? Even without, or prior to, such dire developments, Israel’s public diplomacy (‘hasbara’) efforts are in shambles.
In short, how immune are the Abraham Accords and Israel-Arab peace in general to a real deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations? Will the next protests be more than cosmetic? Here a lot depends on the Palestinians’ capacity to embarrass fellow Arabs into acting against Israel on the one hand, and, on the other, on Iran’s capacity to frighten those same Arabs into seeking strategic cooperation with Israel in both the Middle East and Washington.
Q: And at the Israeli political level?
A: It is hard to escape the impression that we are in a countdown toward the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition. It may survive a single desertion from Bennett’s party or a temporary move by Raam to ‘freeze’ its membership. But how many lives does it have left, particularly when the political right, which dominates Israeli politics and leads this government, pursues a collision course with Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza. How long can Israel’s political and security echelons delude themselves that work permits in Israel will solve everything--or anything?
Q: Bottom line?
A: This holiday period has highlighted two inevitable conclusions regarding both the Palestinian issue and Israeli politics. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is religious, ideological and political--not economic. Ignoring this fact can only make things worse. And the holidays are not even over.
As for Israeli politics, day-by-day we encounter more mind-boggling contradictions. The contradictions are built into a lame-duck coalition of Islamist Arabs and left, center and right-wing Jews--a coalition led by a beleaguered lame-duck politician from a party of five MKs. The end appears near.