by Mitchell Plitnick
This past Tuesday saw the latest in a horrifyingly long line of atrocities in Jerusalem. Two armed Palestinians entered a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood, killed five Israeli civilians and wounded six others before police gunned the murderers down. The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders are worth examining.
Hamas, unsurprisingly, praised the murders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, equally unsurprisingly, condemned them unequivocally. In his official statement, Abbas said that he “…condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”
But this didn’t stop Israeli leaders from continuing their campaign to demonize Abbas, the Palestinian leader who has tried harder, made more compromises and sacrificed more of his own credibility to achieve a two-state solution than any of his predecessors.
“Abbas has intentionally turned the conflict into a religious one between Jews and Muslims, and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews…is the ‘go-ahead’ for these despicable terror attacks,” said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Nov. 18, the day of the attack.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile told reporters that “Abbas, one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people, bears direct responsibility for the Jewish blood spilt… while we were busy with delusions about the [peace] process… Abbas has declared war on Israel and we must treat that accordingly.”
Not to be outdone by the rivals within his own governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This [attack] is a direct result of the incitement lead by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community irresponsibly ignores.” He also dismissed Abbas’ condemnation of the attack because Abbas had said: “While we condemn this incident, we also condemn the aggression toward Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places and torching of mosques and churches.” To Netanyahu, such a statement, though demonstrably based on factual Israeli actions and statements, is “incitement.”
Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He accused the Palestinians of “blood libel,” a term that refers to historical incidents where false charges against Jews of ritual murder were invented to incite anti-Jewish violence.
The vast majority of Netanyahu’s venom, and that of the other Israeli leaders was directed at Abbas, despite the shameful way Hamas applauded this heinous crime. There was a touch of irony to that, as on the same day of the attack, the head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency charged with internal security, had declared quite clearly that “[Abbas] is not interested in terror and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’”
All of this raises a question: Why is the Israeli right ignoring the low-hanging fruit of Hamas and going full bore at Abbas instead? After all, Hamas praised the attack, and Netanyahu and company could easily have stopped at tainting Abbas with the argument that he was in partnership with the Islamists via the unity government. Instead, the Israelis went much farther, to the point of virtually ignoring Hamas and the other Palestinian factions who voiced support for the attack.
The explanation for this behavior involves both the long-term and the short-term. In the short run, this is all part of Netanyahu’s broader public relations campaign linking Iran, Hamas, the Islamic State and now the Palestinian Authority. This campaign has several goals: to make it politically impossible for the United States to work with Iran against Islamic State (ISIS or IS), to make a deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries more difficult, to forestall any further international scrutiny of the siege of the Gaza Strip and to legitimize harsher Israeli measures in Jerusalem, among other goals.
On most counts, the strategy is failing, with the usual exception that Israeli actions in Gaza and Jerusalem are being downplayed, although not totally ignored. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is having more of an effect toward his long-term goal.
The endless refrain of “Iran is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas” is designed to use the universally despised Islamic State to further de-legitimize Iran and the Palestinians. The reasons for this are obvious: to paint both Hamas and Iran as such implacable enemies that Israel would be justified in any action taken against them. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is gradually broadening its scope of Palestinian targets. By blaming incitement from Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the recent attack in Jerusalem, and by repeatedly pointing out that the PA is now run by a unity government (however dysfunctional) that includes Hamas, Netanyahu is, in effect, subtly folding the PA into the “Hamas-ISIS-Iran” equation.
The strategy is working in Netanyahu’s target areas: Israelis at home and Israel’s supporters abroad, and Washington. After the synagogue murders in Jerusalem, John Kerry sounded just like Netanyahu when he blamed Palestinian incitement, clearly including the PA, for the attack. He was followed by a slew of Congress members from both parties, some of whom singled out Abbas by name.
This is part of the Israeli right’s “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It begins with rolling back the arrangements under the Oslo Accords. The vision is something similar to what existed before the Accords were signed in 1993. Israel would have full security control in the West Bank, and the PA would be reduced to an administrative body in the increasingly isolated Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Freedom of movement for Palestinians would be increased in the hope that their economic conditions would improve (possibly through increased Palestinian employment in Israeli businesses) and that this would be enough, with increased Israeli security, to maintain relative calm.
This is a shared vision among Netanyahu, Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, and numerous other right-wing figures in Israel, even though they each present it differently. It was sketched out in broad terms in the Israeli media recently. Another prize in the arrangement for Israel is that it would diminish the PA as the international representative of the Palestinians, thus blunting the gains the Palestinians have gotten through various international recognitions of their statehood. The PA would still exist, but it would be disconnected from the Palestinian street in the Occupied Territories. This would, indeed, resemble the pre-Oslo era.
Even if Netanyahu is ousted from the Prime Minister’s office in the near future (not likely, but possible given the current political waves in Israel), another right-wing leader would certainly be his successor. Thus, the rollback of Oslo would continue, as would the freeze in the peace process. And without a visible representative Palestinian leadership, international pressure for peace would diminish, simply because there won’t be anyone to press Israel to talk to (the United States, Europe and even the United Nations will not, in any foreseeable future, push Israel to talk with Hamas).
The Israeli right believes that this is a status quo that could be maintained indefinitely, with the occasional flare-up of violence with Gaza and sporadic, but disorganized attacks by individual Palestinians from the West Bank. And since right-wing leaders will be controlling Israel until an opposition that can sway the Israeli public toward a more moderate course coalesces, the vision will be pursued.
But we’re already seeing some of the reasons why this vision is unsustainable. Israeli radicals will continue to agitate for greater Jewish control of the Temple Mount, and any right-wing Israeli government cannot simply ignore them. That will lead to more and more individual acts of violence like the one this week in Jerusalem and the several that preceded it recently.
Perhaps the Israeli right thinks they can handle that as well, and they may be correct. But there is another aspect about the pre-Oslo existence that they may be overlooking.
The separation of the Palestinian masses from the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1980s led to the development of a more grassroots, locally based Palestinian leadership. It was that leadership, not the PLO, which created the first, and by far the more successful, Intifada. Palestinians have been yearning for a new leadership, and a new generation of leaders with popular support would be most welcome among them.
The first intifada was certainly not non-violent, but it relied much more on strikes, protests and civil disobedience than the second one did. Violence was a very minor aspect of it at first, until Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “breaking the Palestinians’ limbs” increased it. Even so, the non-violent aspects of that uprising remained front and center. It was then that the United States, and soon after, Israel, embraced the idea of peace with the PLO, in order to end the intifada and to blunt and co-opt that new Palestinian leadership.
If such a leadership arose again, it would be impossible to ignore politically, even in Washington and Tel Aviv. But Palestinians need to hope for it, because if the Obama administration is so removed from this issue that it is willing to blame Abbas for acts that he has strongly condemned, then the Oslo rollback-vision will prove successful, and there will be even less pressure on Israel to compromise. But that would also present an opportunity for the new Palestinian leadership to encourage renewed international activism aimed at economically pressuring Israel. And that could bring real change.
There is, however, a very long road between that sort of hope and where we are right now.
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