Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: July 7, 2014


Q. The past week has witnessed the discovery of the three yeshiva students' bodies near Hebron, their highly emotional funeral, the kidnapping and brutal murder of a Palestinian boy from Jerusalem, and the apprehension of his young Jewish murderers. Meanwhile, Arab citizens of Israel are rioting, while rockets from Gaza continue to hit as far as Beersheva. A new intifada?

A. No, or at least, not yet. There are a number of important factors that distinguish the current situation from the circumstances that led to the second intifada that erupted in the fall of 2000; they mitigate against a new one.

Of particular importance, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is not Yasser Arafat. Abbas consistently opposes and condemns violence, whereas Arafat either openly or clandestinely encouraged it. Abbas even took a political risk and openly pledged Palestinian security cooperation with Israel during the extended hostage drama. Then too, unlike in 2000, the West Bank and Gaza Strip no longer function as a single unit. Indeed, beyond the kidnapping in the Etzion Bloc more than three weeks ago, the violence we are currently witnessing is concentrated in the Israeli Arab sector, including East Jerusalem where Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, and--in the form of rocket and mortar fire--in Gaza, but not in the West Bank.

Further, a few institutions and persons have learned lessons from mistakes made in 2000. Then, the outbreak of the intifada witnessed the killing of 13 Arab citizens of Israel at the hands of the Israel Police, who were understaffed and inexperienced at crowd control. This time, at least until now, there have been no Israeli Arab fatalities or serious injuries as the police have demonstrated far greater skill. Yes, the brutal beating of Mohammed Abu Khdeir's cousin by the Border Police is repulsive; but the violence could have been far worse and far more incendiary. In addition, a number of Israeli Arab mayors have openly called for restraint--again, unlike in 2000.

It helps, too, that until now Israel has not radically escalated its response to rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has ignored his own ultimatum to Hamas to cease fire within 48 hours, apparently in favor of attempts by Egyptian military intelligence to mediate. The police and Shin Bet have contributed by solving the Abu Khdeir murder quickly and apprehending the six Jewish youth who apparently perpetrated this truly loathsome deed. The authorities also contrived to publicize the arrests very quickly, at the same time publicizing the arrest of an Arab taxi driver from northern Israel who had confessed to killing a young Jewish woman, apparently for racist-nationalist reasons as well, some two months ago. The "racist symmetry" ostensibly created by this timing looks artificial and contrived, but if it helps calm things down it might make sense.

Netanyahu, always a cautious leader where military action is concerned, is clearly trying to avoid escalation with Hamas in Gaza while at the same time exploiting the original hostage drama to try to undo the Hamas-Fateh and Gaza-West Bank unity government agreement. The Abu Khdeir abduction and murder by Israelis has in any case rendered it virtually impossible in terms of both international and Israeli public opinion for Israel to take punitive measures in the West Bank beyond those incurred in the course of searching for the two Hamas kidnappers of the yeshiva students. On the other hand, in view of Netanyahu's role in thwarting the Kerry peace mission, Abbas can hardly interpret Netanyahu's drive to dissolve the unity government as sending a message of peace and conciliation.

The first and second intifada broke out unexpectedly, triggered by incidents not immediately understood to have such incendiary potential. The third one could be equally impossible to predict--despite all the current efforts to avoid precisely such an incident.

Q. From Israel's standpoint, what were the low points of the government's and security establishment's performance over the past dramatic weeks?

A. I would point to two. One was the appalling failure of the Israel Police to comprehend the "100" (Israel's 911) emergency call it received the night of the yeshiva students' abduction from one of the abductees. Now that the recording of the call is public knowledge, it is simply impossible to understand how the police did not realize that a terrorist kidnapping and murder were underway.

A second low point emerged only when the public understood that, because of the phone call, the authorities were aware within about 24 hours that the three Israeli youth were almost certainly dead. Yet the public was told that the working assumption was that they were alive. This enabled the government to wage a propaganda war worldwide to whip up sympathy and support, to the extent of sending the boys' mothers to Geneva to plead for their lives. Conceivably, certain operational considerations were involved in the bluff. But so was a lot of cynicism.

Q. How would you characterize the role played by incitement on both sides?

A. The role is huge. First, there are the more or less permanent features of incitement. Palestinian incitement, particularly in mosques and by Hamas, is a constant factor influencing violence. We noted in past weeks that the Hamas abduction in the Etzion Bloc could be seen as a direct response to a call by the Hamas leadership to kidnap Israelis. On the Israeli side, settlement-building is understood by Palestinians as incitement. The racist behavior of Jerusalem's Beitar soccer team and its fans--a team supported by the likes of Ehud Olmert and incoming president Reuven Rivlin--is legion. In recent years, "price tag" attacks, usually on West Bank and Jerusalem Arab and Christian property, have fueled the fire. Numerous West Bank and other rabbis and their followers are constant inciters.

Essentially, in Israeli and Palestinian life no one does much about the permanent aspects of incitement (except complain about the other side), despite the inevitable outcome. The Abu Khdeir murder must be understood as a by-product of earlier, relatively "harmless" price-tag attacks, almost all of which have never been solved by the authorities. Now three new outposts dedicated to the memory of the three yeshiva students have been established in the West Bank in yet another extension of the settlement affront to Palestinians. Because Netanyahu has no real strategy regarding the long-term status of Israeli Arabs (including East Jerusalem Arabs)--and they know it--many of their number are easily incited to violent protest.

What has spiked over the past few weeks is Israeli incitement. After the discovery of the yeshiva students' bodies, calls for revenge were rampant, from senior Jewish Home leaders like Naftali Bennet and Likud right-wingers like Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon to the social media. Netanyahu did nothing about this. Now that extremist youth inevitably interpreted the incitement literally and brutally murdered an innocent East Jerusalem Arab boy, everyone's "sorry".

It's hard to believe this incident will cause the extreme and religious right in Israel to reconsider its rhetoric. After all, that would mean reconsidering its ideology. That didn't happen after the Goldstein atrocity or the Rabin assassination. The inciters are even stronger politically now.

Q. To what extent does the current volatile situation with the Palestinians threaten Netanyahu's coalition?

Recent weeks have featured constant tensions within Netanyahu's coalition, as Bennet and Foreign Minister Lieberman have supported extreme measures against Palestinians while Netanyahu, supported by Defense Minister Yaalon, Justice Minister Livni and Finance Minister Lapid, counseled caution. Lieberman and Bennet have been particularly outspoken in their demand for a full-scale military invasion of the Gaza Strip aimed at eliminating Hamas.

That demand of course ignores the huge losses this would incur, the sweeping international condemnation, the likelihood that Hamas' already weak rule in Gaza would be replaced by that of more extreme jihadist elements, and the negative effect a war in Gaza and the rise of jihadist rule there could have on the stability of the relatively friendly and strongly anti-Islamist Sisi government in Egypt. An alternative Gaza campaign aimed at destroying the Strip's capacity to produce and store strategic rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, but without occupying the Strip, risks the same sort of escalation and would at best register temporary achievements and leave tens of thousands of Israelis as targets of tactical short-range rockets fired from the Strip.

On Monday, Lieberman told Netanyahu he was dissolving the joint Likud-Yisrael Beitenu Knesset list. He clearly believes his aggressive, racist approach to the Palestinians is popular and wants to capitalize on this effect by differentiating himself from Netanyahu. While this does not dissolve the coalition, it is a step in that direction and a challenge to Netanyahu's near-constant task of balancing his coalition's centrists with its extremists, all the while promoting empty peace negotiations but also settlement building, and avoiding too much violence.

But after all, this is precisely the "balanced" coalition Netanyahu wanted. In dealing with all this divisiveness, Netanyahu temporarily benefits politically from the absence of a peace process and the political and economic weakness being demonstrated both by Abbas in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza. From this standpoint, survival of the new Palestinian unity government would weaken his hand by inviting international pressure on Israel.

If Netanyahu can't continue to fine tune the situation and an intifada breaks out, coalition unity would definitely be jeopardized. Another threat would be the collapse of Hamas rule in Gaza with or without an Israeli invasion, leading to a major political controversy in Israel over "who lost Gaza to global jihad": both Israel and Egypt have to be worried by the fact that Hamas has been asking Cairo for days to mediate a ceasefire, yet the movement seems incapable of enforcing one.

Barring these or similar eventualities, the coalition will probably weather this storm. Netanyahu is skilful at navigating politically in circumstances like these.

Q. Did the failure of Kerry's peace process catalyze the current violence?

A. Had the violence broken out in the midst of peace talks, as it did in the fall of 2000, it might be possible to point to a direct link. But in the present case, the failed peace process probably had no more than an indirect negative effect. Too many momentous developments, like the Palestinian unity government and the Etzion Bloc abduction, separate the demise of Kerry's efforts from the violence, even though those two events were themselves arguably linked to Kerry's failure.

Certainly, it's clear that failed peace efforts redound negatively on Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Kerry's negotiating project was virtually doomed from the start. There is no indication that Washington factored in the problematic effect of failure on the overall situation before commencing its two-state solution effort a year ago.