Losing Control in the West Bank . . . and in Russia (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- June 26, 2023)


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. It looks like no one is in charge in the northern West Bank: Jenin- and Nablus-based Palestinian gangs are killing settlers; settlers are rampaging in Palestinian villages. Where is the IDF? Where is the Palestinian Authority?

A. The relationship between half a million settlers in the West Bank, several thousand of them anarchist Orthodox ‘hill youth’, and 2.85 million Palestinians, is far worse than “no one in charge”.

Behind the settlers is a far-right Israeli government in which a weak Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu berates the settlers that “no one is above the law’ while Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir urges the most radical settlers to “run to the hills” and settle them regardless of the law. Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich, now officially responsible for the settlements, sponsors the legalization of virtually every pirate settler outpost, while the Israel Defense Forces vow pathetically to dismantle them.

Israel’s commitment to the United States, the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan at the Aqaba Conference last February, to freeze settlement activity and outpost authorization, was violated from the start.

Behind the seemingly unaffiliated Palestinian gunmen who last week killed four settlers near Eli in the heart of the West Bank are, in spirit, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and, logistically (money, weapons), Iran. The Palestinian Authority security forces, who are still pledged to cooperate with the IDF to maintain law and order, are nowhere to be seen in the northern West Bank. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, at age 87 a frail and fading figure who refuses to leave office, succeeds thereby in maintaining vaguely anarchic governance while all his potential successors stand aside.

The IDF has dealt with more than 100 Palestinian armed attacks in the West Bank in less than half a year. It thwarted another 300; some 180 attack alerts are currently pending. Last week an IDF mission into the heart of Jenin got into trouble. IDF armored vehicles were disabled by Palestinian sappers. The Israel Air Force was called in. IDF soldiers were wounded. A number of Palestinians were killed.

The attack killing four settlers was Palestinian revenge. Then came Israeli revenge: hundreds of armed hill youth, many from soon-to-be-legalized outposts, raided neighboring Palestinian villages, torching homes and vehicles. One Israeli newspaper counted 85 such pogroms over the past week.

The IDF, which should have anticipated these revenge pogroms, consistently arrived too late. Eventually, the Shin Bet placed a handful of hill youth under administrative detention. The IDF chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet and the chief of Israel Police released an unusual joint condemnation of the settler pogroms, terming them “contrary to all Jewish moral values”.

Because one of the pillaged Arab villages, Turmusaya, is populated by American citizens (google the village and check out Turmusaya Jewelry New Jersey and Turmusaya Association Chicago), the US Embassy and the State Department were particularly irate and critical of Israel.

Still, US Ambassador Thomas Nides had to be careful to condemn the Palestinian killing of the four settlers first and most emphatically. If he was watching Israel TV news, he saw that all four news stations, only one of which (channel 14) is unambiguously identified with the messianic and pro-settler right, covered the murder of the four Israeli settlers without even a hint of judgment as to what those settlers stood for: theft of Palestinian land.

Indeed, the youngest two victims of the Eli attack lived on outposts that at least until now were illegal land grabs even under Israeli law. Relatives and neighbors of the four, when interviewed, treated the settlements and outposts as integral parts of Israel. Not a single interviewer demurred. This, better than most analyses, describes where Israel is today.

Q. So, weak and conflicted governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah are responsible? That should eventually be fixable. . .

A. Eventually is the key word here, because as matters stand, eventually this is liable to get worse, not better. In the PA, after Abbas might come Hamas or, at a minimum, someone more militant from Abbas’s Fatah. In Israel, the extreme factions of Netanyahu’s coalition, all religious, are Israel’s fastest growing demographic.

As Israel and Palestine continue their descent down a slippery slope toward a violent bi-nationality, clashes involving Palestinian terrorists and settler vigilante groups will only get worse. Note that only around two years elapsed since an earlier and more extensive clash involving Jews and Arabs in mixed cities in Israel, that time against a backdrop of conflict in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip instead of the northern West Bank: Operation Guardian of the Walls.

The busier Israel’s security community is with Jewish vigilantes, the less energy it will have to deal with Israel’s non-Jewish enemies. In Friday’s Yediot Aharonot, Nachum Barnea quotes an Israeli security figure: “When we succeed in eliminating terrorists, another Palestinian attack is born, in revenge. Each incident raises the likelihood of another terrorist attack.” He should have added: and another settler vigilante action is launched. A vicious circle.

Right now, the settlers and their supporters call for a full-fledged punitive IDF invasion of the northern West Bank--a repeat of Operation Offensive Shield (2002). The IDF is resisting. It knows the price Israel will pay: in lives, in relations with Israel’s neighbors, in international condemnation of the occupation and the inevitable war crimes, in the anarchy that could be caused by the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Israel could end up fully reoccupying the West Bank.

Q. Can’t this be fixed? Can’t new rules of Israeli and Palestinian governance be devised?

A. Israel needs a constitution in order to govern itself in a manner that maintains democracy and pluralism despite the growing anarchy among its “tribes”: Haredim, messianic settlers, Arabs, and democratic liberals who may already constitute a minority. And it needs a national debate regarding the future of its relationship with Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinians need better leadership prospects. Both need heavy American pressure and intervention. And they need Arab neighbors who care about the Israeli and Palestinian governance deficit. None of this looks likely in the foreseeable future.

Is anyone in the leadership in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Washington doing anything serious about this? Are Israel’s friendly Arab neighbors, all of them dictatorships whose interest in Israel is limited primarily to high-tech and arms purchases and collaboration against militant Islam?

The answer is clearly, no! This is a crisis of governance in Israel and no one--least of all Israeli politicians--is seriously helping Israel dig its way out of it.

Q. Turning to the dramatic events in Russia over the weekend, they pose the prospect of a weak Moscow regime losing its grip: a second governance crisis. How would this affect Israel?

A. For the moment, President Putin appears to have won the day. But he has clearly displayed a dangerous weakness. Hence this is more than a theoretical discussion. There could be benefits for Israel from a Russian governance crisis, but also drawbacks.

A weak and chaotic Russia could conceivably create a new reality whereby the IDF has a freer hand in combating Iran’s hegemonic drive into Syria. There, since 2015 a Russian military presence has deterred Israel and required close Israel-Russia coordination. A weakened Russia could also encourage Israel to openly support Ukraine militarily--a potentially good investment in relations with Washington, NATO and the European Union.

A weak Russia would also, presumably, weaken the burgeoning Russia-Iran alliance. That would benefit Israel and its Arab state neighbors.

On the other hand, Israel and the world could confront the prospect of an unsteady or treacherous Russian hand on the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Then too, at least for the moment, the prospect of poorer overall control over Wagner Group contingents in the Middle East--in Syria, Libya and Sudan--is, bearing in mind the leadership style of Yevgeny Prigozhin, unsettling.

Finally, the fate of some 70,000 Israeli citizens and half a million additional Jews on Russian soil could become challenging if Putin falls and is replaced by anarchy or a ruler who admires Israel less than Putin reputedly does.

In short, we could miss Putin . . .

Q. Bottom line: Beyond triggering crises of governance, what is there in common between encouragement of settler pogroms by an Israeli government minister, Ben Gvir, and Prigozhin’s challenge to Putin?

A. There is light relief. Orit Strook is minister of national missions (a ministry title only fascist messianists could invent) on behalf of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. Responding to the three Israeli security chiefs condemning last week’s West Bank settler pogroms, she stated: “What is this, the Wagner force? Who do you think you are?”