This week, Alpher discusses the strategic ramifications of last Tuesday's murderous attack on men praying in a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem - in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the security sphere, the political arena, and whether here are any additional levels.
Q. What are the strategic ramifications of last Tuesday's murderous attack on men praying in a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem?
A. This was the most vicious in a series of Arab attacks on Jewish civilians in Jerusalem in recent weeks. It followed upon a number of instances in which Palestinians from East Jerusalem used vehicles as a weapon to attack Jewish pedestrians. The images from last Tuesday's attack accelerated a series of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and the Israeli security and political spheres that definitely have strategic ramifications.
Q. Let's start with the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
A. First, Jerusalem is being re-divided. PM Binyamin Netanyahu, the politician who first rode to power in 1996 on the wings of the false accusation that "[his electoral opponent Shimon] Peres is dividing Jerusalem" is now himself presiding over a government that is setting up roadblocks wherever the Arab villages that were incorporated willy-nilly into "united" Jerusalem in 1967 empty out into the city's metropolitan center.
Second, the tacit yet startling acknowledgement by the government that the city has to again be divided resonates particularly strongly in view of the relative security prevailing in the West Bank. There, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is able to maintain peace and quiet and "insulate" the territory from the emerging intifada in Jerusalem. Here it bears recalling that until 2002, and in accordance with the Oslo accords, the PA maintained an agreed quasi-political presence in East Jerusalem at Orient House, and was permitted by Israel to discretely deploy its security forces in the city's Arab neighborhoods, where they maintained relative quiet. Now pro-Hamas sentiment and incitement is dominant in East Jerusalem. Significantly, though, all recent perpetrators of terrorism against Jews appear to have acted on their own, independently.
The obvious implication is that PA security forces are more capable than Israeli forces of preventing Palestinian terrorism in Jerusalem. But that in turn signals that in some way, shape or form, East Jerusalem still can serve as a Palestinian capital--a notion Netanyahu cannot abide.
And third, last week we witnessed Netanyahu, who first rose to political power as a self-styled expert on terrorism, declaring that "incitement is the root of the conflict". We'll discuss below just who is really inciting. While there clearly is far-reaching and pervasive Palestinian incitement against Israel and against Jews, the question here is whether incitement is the cause of the conflict or an effect of the conflict. Surely incitement is produced by something else. It could be the settlements; it could be anti-Semitism; it could be the clash between two opposing claims to the land. After all, there is Jewish incitement, too, and nobody argues that it is actually a root cause of the conflict.
The Har Nof attack, incidentally, was deemed a Palestinian response to the death of an Arab bus driver who was found a few days earlier, dead by hanging, in his Egged bus in Jerusalem. The Israeli post mortem declared the death a suicide. No one in Israel questions the integrity of this finding. A Palestinian pathologist who attended the autopsy concurred, but later, once back home, recanted and called the death a murder. Virtually no Palestinian in East Jerusalem would acknowledge that the death was a suicide, so wide is the credibility gap between the two parts of the city.
Q. And the security sphere?
A. Last week we also heard Yoram Cohen, head of the Shin Bet, a Netanyahu appointee who is identified with the religious right, argue pointedly--in clear contradiction to the opinions voiced by the government establishment from Netanyahu on down--that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is not inciting and not encouraging terrorism. Indeed, Abbas condemned the Har Nof attack.
True, Fateh applauded the attack, along with Hamas. And Palestinians were filmed celebrating the attack in the streets of Gaza and Bethlehem. But Cohen's insistence on exonerating Abbas--presumably a sine qua non if Israel wants to continue its close cooperation with PA security in the West Bank and keep the intifada from spreading beyond Jerusalem--obliged Netanyahu and his fellow Likud ministers Moshe Yaalon (Defense) and Yuval Steinitz (Strategic Affairs) to engage in verbal contortions in order to continue blaming Abbas, thereby ostensibly explaining to the international community why there can be no peace process, while backing up Shin Bet head Cohen.
The latter, incidentally, is cited by the government as its security authority for renewing the punishment of demolishing the homes of terrorists, in this case in Jerusalem. The IDF is opposed; it researched the issue in depth some years ago and concluded that this sort of collective punishment constitutes incitement to more terrorism rather than a deterrent. But Netanyahu has to show the public he is "doing something".
Apropos Netanyahu and security, we recall that the prime minister's "ticket" to repeated electoral victory has been that he has delivered on both security and economic prosperity. Last summer's Gaza war and the current Jerusalem intifada have seemingly demolished the first claim, while a growing economic slowdown and Fitch Rating's demotion last week of Israel's international financial ranking are finishing off the latter. Accordingly, Netanyahu is now resorting to a call for political "national unity" so the country can stand fast against threats over which it ostensibly has no control.
Q. That brings us to the political arena.
A. The Jerusalem wave of terrorism has put wind in the sails of the right-religious faction in Netanyahu's coalition and in his own Likud party. On Sunday the militant right pushed through the Cabinet, with Netanyahu's approval, extremist draft legislation that prioritizes Israel's "Jewish" status over its "democratic" status, gives "national" rights to Jews alone, relegates Arabic to second class national status compared to Hebrew, prioritizes home construction for Jews only, and awards "Jewish law" preferred status as inspiration for the legal system. Herzl, Ben Gurion and, yes, Jabotinsky and Begin turned over in their graves.
This extreme and provocative move is generally understood to have little chance of being legislated by the Knesset, where a majority opposes it. Instead, its most obvious and immediate function is to enhance Netanyahu's right-wing credentials in anticipation of Likud leadership primaries in early January. But it also alienates the liberal parties in the coalition, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni's HaTnua. Livni, as justice minister, opposes the initiative and has offered her own watered down "nation state" law, while Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein opposes all "nation state" proposals as counter-productive to Israel's real interest.
Accordingly, there is widespread speculation that Netanyahu might be using the initiative to oblige Livni and Lapid to leave the coalition, thereby opening the door either to inviting the ultra-orthodox parties to join or to initiating new elections. Yet the former option would leave Netanyahu with a fragile 61-MK (out of 120) majority, while current polls indicate that the latter option, elections, would benefit only Naftali Bennet's far-right Jewish Home party at the expense of nearly everyone else.
Yet another explanation for Netanyahu's political behavior is that he plans a "trade-off" with Livni and Lapid: no nation-state law in return for mothballing the Yisrael HaYom law, which is designed to outlaw the extreme pro-Netanyahu freebee daily newspaper bankrolled by arch-Republican cum Likudnik cum gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson. Here some would argue that banning the free distribution of a newspaper because you don't like its point of view is nearly as problematic in terms of basic human rights as relegating Israel's Arabs to constitutional second-class status.
Of course, there is also the option of ridding the coalition of its extreme right wing and rebuilding it with Labor and possibly even Meretz. But this would oblige Netanyahu to radically reverse his rhetoric. And change his ideology.
Q. Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian, security and political spheres, is the current crisis operating at any additional level?
A. Yes, the religious--the most dangerous dimension of all, the one the entire security community has long warned the government to stay away from. There is already a Druze-Muslim aspect. Because Druze border policemen were among those killed in the recent Jerusalem attacks, and because many Israelis attended their funerals and the Hebrew press lauded their contribution to security, we have now begun to witness clashes between Muslims and Druze in mixed villages in Israel's north.
But it could get much worse. If Muslims can attack Jews at prayer, Jews can attack Muslims at prayer: this already happened, just 20 years ago, when Kiryat Arba settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron--a key event in the launching of Hamas suicide bombings and the deterioration of the Oslo process. Note that Jewish extremists make pilgrimages to the elaborate grave for Goldstein that they were permitted to build in Kiryat Arba--something to keep in mind when we condemn Palestinians' glorification of their own terrorist killers.
Here it bears recalling: the direct catalyst for the current Jerusalem unrest is the Temple Mount. Extremist Jews want to pray there; Muslims argue there never was a temple on the Mount, and extremist Muslims are turning to violence to make their point. The disposition of the Mount and the Jerusalem Holy Basin in general is a key unsolved issue of contention in Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations. Back to square one.