Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: June 16, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses what we should focus on with regard to the abduction-settlement link; if there is any link between the abduction, presumably by Palestinian Islamist extremists, and the military successes last week of the ISIS salafi group in Iraq; how all this will affect the Palestinian unity government experiment; and how the election of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin as president of Israel last week will affect the Israeli political discussion of settlements and the two-state solution.

Q. There is obviously some sort of link between the abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last week and the entire settlement enterprise. What should we focus on?

A. Two major events took place in the course of the past year that must be understood to have contributed to the circumstances surrounding the abduction. The first was last July, when US Secretary of State John Kerry confronted Prime Minister Netanyahu with the choice of a single concession to make to PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in order to render renewed two-state solution negotiations possible: either a settlement freeze or the release of prisoners incarcerated since before the Oslo accords.

Netanyahu, ever faithful to the settlement cause, preferred to release some 100 veteran prisoners, all convicted of violent crimes against Israelis. He then proceeded to accompany each of three quarterly prisoner releases with new settlement construction initiatives. Thus there developed a spiraling dynamic that linked settlements and prisoners.

Ultimately, complications over the prisoner releases did contribute to the collapse of negotiations, though not as much as Israel's energetic settlement expansion in the midst of negotiations. In the meantime, a new dynamic that had begun with the Gilad Shalit prisoner release deal in 2011--wherein over 1,000 Palestinians were released in return for a single Israeli--accelerated, as repeated attempts were made by Palestinians to abduct more Israelis in the hope of exchanging them for incarcerated terrorists. Over 40 such attempted abductions, mainly by Hamas and mainly directed at IDF soldiers in the West Bank, were thwarted in the past 18 months alone before last week's abduction succeeded. The ongoing hunger strike by over 100 administrative detainees in Israeli prisons that we discussed last week fed the flames of Palestinian resentment over the fate of prisoners in Israeli jails.

The second major event is the advent two weeks ago of a Palestinian unity government supported by Hamas and recognized by nearly the entire international community except the Netanyahu government, which focuses on its Hamas link even though it is composed of a-political technocrats. As we reported in these virtual pages, one immediate derivative of reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas was greater leniency on the part of Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank regarding Hamas political activity, demonstrations and the like. And indeed, according to Israeli security authorities it was Hamas activists from the Hebron area in the southern West Bank who carried out the abduction.

This led Netanyahu to blame the very fact of a unity government for the abduction, even though the evidence linking the two is at best circumstantial and PA security forces are actively cooperating in the search for the three teenagers, which now centers on Hebron. The IDF and Shin Bet are exploiting the opportunity to round up a large number of Hamas activists in the West Bank and apparently hope, by pressuring them and locking down Hebron, to find a link to the abduction. The authorities are even considering deporting the Hamas activists to the Gaza Strip where Hamas has its headquarters. Hamas, incidentally, denies sponsoring the abduction--a position that could reflect a genuine lack of foreknowledge of Hamas activists' plans in the Hebron area or, alternatively, simple prudence on Hamas' part insofar as it fears Israeli military pressure on its forces in Gaza. By Saturday, Secretary Kerry was acknowledging the probability that Hamas was behind the abduction, apparently on the basis of solid intelligence provided by Israel.

Whatever the outcome of the abduction drama, Netanyahu is already trumpeting his condemnation of the unity government for providing cover for terrorists along with a growing right-wing refusal to countenance future prisoner releases, no matter what the circumstances. A large portion of the public is likely to support these positions. But Netanyahu will also almost certainly give his approval for more settlement construction (the usual "appropriate Zionist response"), thereby augmenting the mosaic of overlapping Israeli and Palestinian infrastructures in the West Bank that made it so easy to snatch three people in Area C and disappear with them into Area A. If, God forbid, the three teenagers are killed or are never found, a new settlement might be named for them. The fact that most Israelis want the settler enterprise to end and a two-state solution to be negotiated will once again be lost in this drama of settlements and terrorism.

Q. Is there any link between the abduction, presumably by Palestinian Islamist extremists, and the military successes last week of the ISIS salafi group in Iraq?

A. Other than the fact that in both cases the protagonists are Sunni Muslim extremists, it's hard to find a link. In recent weeks, a few announcements by "ISIS Palestine" have cropped up, including one taking credit for the abduction. But Israeli security authorities do not attach much credence to them.

Q. So how will all this affect the Palestinian unity government experiment?

A. It's almost certain to affect it negatively. Hamas' apparent involvement in the abduction means heavy pressure from Israel and possibly the US and others on Abbas to avoid further integration of Hamas into PA affairs and into the PLO. Will the US again encourage Palestinian elections (scheduled tentatively to be held in six months) with Hamas participation, as President Bush did in 2006, leading to a Hamas victory?

Here one possible counter-direction of developments should be pointed out. The abduction has been condemned by Abbas. He and Netanyahu have conversed by phone for the first time in more than a year. PA security forces are actively and openly helping in the search at a time when the Palestinian population broadly supports the abduction. Might this lead to closer contact somewhere down the line?

Meanwhile, criticism of the aging Abbas from his own subordinates is increasing. Last week witnessed the airing of a video in which PLO Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat called Abbas a "dictator like Bashar and Saddam" and asked how long the "old man" will be "stuck in the muqataa [PA headquarters in Ramallah]". In London, Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian published an article calling for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and for "rethinking" the right of return. And back in Ramallah, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah acknowledged publicly that so far his government had been unable to exercise any authority at all inside the Gaza Strip.

Q. Finally, last week the Knesset elected Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin president of Israel for a seven year term. Rivlin is a firm advocate of the Greater Land of Israel and a one-state solution. How will this affect the Israeli political discussion of settlements and the two-state solution?

A. Before returning to the settlements, it bears mentioning--or repeating, since we have discussed this at length in recent weeks--that the presidential elections reflected an extremely worrisome degree of corruption, and toleration thereof, at the highest ranks of Israeli politics. After the departure under a cloud of suspicion of candidates Sylvan Shalom and Binyamin Ben Eliezer shortly before election day, it emerged right after Rivlin's victory that his opponent in the second round, Meir Sheetrit, who received 53 votes to Rivlin's 63, was also apparently involved in dealings that interest the police.

So the election of Rivlin, who is apparently squeaky clean and maintains an extremely modest standard of living, came as a relief to a country where a former prime minister has just been sentenced to six years in prison and a former IDF chief of staff and a senior police officer are also currently under investigation. As one political commentator put it, "the man with the fewest homes won the race."

Rivlin has long been an advocate of annexing the West Bank and granting citizenship to its Palestinian population. When it is pointed out to him that this will quickly jeopardize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he waffles a bit: there might have to be a citizenship test, a loyalty pledge, a gradual process. In short, his undoubtedly sincere emotional tie to the Greater Land of Israel is not linked to a clearly thought-out strategy. Were Rivlin to have his way, terrorist abductions of Israeli youth would easily be carried on roads deep inside Israel rather than only among the settlements in the West Bank.

Israel's president has no executive authority beyond deciding which party gets first crack at forming a coalition after elections. (Netanyahu's opposition to Rivlin's candidacy reportedly stemmed from his fear that Rivlin as president would not appoint Netanyahu prime minister-designate, since the two are fierce political enemies within the rightist camp.) Thus as president, Rivlin will be able to declare his support for settlements much as outgoing President Peres warned against them for the past seven years--not much more, and without any more effect.

But Rivlin will also be a hands-on "man of the people" type president, reminiscent of Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel's second president. A fluent Arabic speaker, he has declared that his first presidential visit will be to Kafr Kassem, the Israeli Arab village that was the scene of a war-crime massacre in 1956. At least some Arab members of Knesset voted for him in gratitude for his basic decency. He and his wife, who grew up in a moshav farming community, want to remain in their simple Jerusalem apartment rather than move to the presidential mansion.

Rivlin is an old-style Jerusalem Revisionist secular Jew with close ties to the city's ultra-orthodox. He apparently does not know the Diaspora well and will focus on Israeli society rather than, in the Peres mode, on the international scene. If he can overcome his aversion to recognizing Reform and Conservative Judaism as equal in status, he could be a popular, positive president. He is, after all, very much a democrat; as speaker of the Knesset he had a reputation for scrupulously upholding principles of equality and fair play and blocking legislative initiatives that would have discriminated against any sector of Israelis. Besides, he has his work cut out for him in restoring public trust in what seems to have become a very corrupt "system".