A Glimmer of Light Through the Clouds
These are not auspicious times for supporters of two states. The generally despondent mood was captured by Chemi Shalev this week in a column where he declared the death of whatever remaining optimism to which he had been clinging, and resigned himself to Israelis and Palestinians never resolving their differences and continuously battling – a “war of the cowards” in his formulation. This comes on the heels of Mahmoud Abbas’s UNGA declaration that the Palestinian Authority no longer feels bound by the Oslo Accords and will pick and choose which elements it cooperates with; the mounting terrorist attacks targeting Israelis of all stripes and ages; the unrest wracking Jerusalem and its immediate environs; and the rumbling conflict and potential wider conflagration over the Temple Mount.
The most immediately pressing problem is the intifada that is taking place in Jerusalem, despite the reluctance of most politicians and other observers to call it what it is. There are multiple attacks and arrests taking place every day, too many incidents of rock throwing to catalogue, seizures of caches of weapons and firebombs, and entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are rapidly becoming battle zones. This does not even take into account what is going on in the West Bank, where attacks and arrests are both up as well, or the riot in Jaffa on Tuesday night. The intelligence and security forces have assured Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no intifada yet, only a wave of increased violence, but this is a distinction without a difference that is based on an outdated fallacy. The fallacy is that an intifada can only erupt with the complicity of the Palestinian leadership, and since Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been cracking down and trying to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, ipso facto there must not be an intifada.
This ignores a very basic lesson in political science, which is that just because something has always happened in one particular manner does not mean it is fated to always unfold the same way. Civil uprisings have a logic of their own, which is what makes them so difficult to predict.
One of the main lessons of the inaptly termed Arab Spring is that Middle Eastern authoritarian governments –which the PA most certainly is – do not have absolute control over their subjects, and this is particularly the case for regimes that are already hampered by questions of legitimacy.
Just because the first and second intifadas were encouraged and planned by the Palestinian leadership does not mean that the next one must take the same path. The PA does not have a monopoly on violence in the territory under its control, and nationalist entrepreneurs seeking to foment civil unrest for their own political goals will not necessarily heed the PA’s preferences or follow its lead. In addition, Palestinian politics is more fragmented than it was fifteen years ago, and Hamas and other even more extreme groups do not have the same incentive structure as the PA. Finally, given what we have seen from seemingly leaderless social movements around the globe over the course of this decade, expecting the PA to turn the intifada switch on or off at its discretion may be foolhardy.
Adding to the tension is that the current unrest is centered around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. While the second intifada was set off following Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit but was not driven by the Mount itself, the recent increase in violence is centered almost entirely around the Temple Mount and the allegation that Israel is attempting to alter the status quo that establishes the plaza as a site exclusively for Muslim prayer. Anything having to do with the Temple Mount is inevitably explosive given that it is a symbol simultaneously religious and nationalist for both sides, and the fact that actors who should know better – such as Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan – are fanning the flames by making grossly exaggerated accusations about Israeli actions only furthers the prospects of violence spreading out of control.
It is not only the Palestinians or the Jordanians who are using attacks on Israelis to further their own political ends, but members of the Israeli government as well. The more hardline rightwingers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from Likud such as Haim Katz and Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have been agitating that Netanyahu needs to adopt harsher responses to terrorist attacks on Israelis, and some went so far as to demonstrate outside his house in protest of policies that the government in which they serve has adopted. Netanyahu batted them down earlier this week by implicitly threatening to disband the government should the friendly fire continue, but adding a dose of political unrest to the soaring civil unrest makes for a poisonous mix.
So what is the silver lining, if any, to be found in this doom and gloom? It is that Netanyahu is actually behaving like the reasonable adult in the room and doing his best to prevent the situation from spiraling further downward. Aside from appearing to finally understand the threat that expanded settlement activity poses to Israel internationally and continuing to enforce an unpublicized settlement freeze, Netanyahu is doing his best to actually maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount despite the enormous political pressure on him to establish new facts on the ground (and despite the inherent injustice of preventing Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site). Furthermore, Netanyahu has ordered the police to ban all government ministers and MKs from the Temple Mount, an extraordinary step that speaks to how seriously he understands that there will be no capping the eruption should tensions over the site escalate.
Folks on the left and the center tend to come down hard on Netanyahu – and rightly so – when he does and says things for his own political gain that deepen Israel’s isolation or contribute to illiberal trends in Israeli politics and society, yet Abbas is often given a free pass due to the uncomfortable political situation in which he must operate. While the estimation of the Israeli security establishment is that Abbas is doing his best to tamp down the violence erupting throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank and that Israel is going to miss him enormously when he is gone, this is not the whole story. He certainly deserves credit for all positive steps, but the fact that he has his own political survival at stake should not inoculate him from criticism over fanning the flames on the Temple Mount, or refusing to condemn terrorist activity that can in no way be chalked up as legitimate political protest or civil disobedience or resistance against an occupying power. The Israeli occupation is not a trump card when it comes to irresponsible rhetoric that will inevitably lead to incitement or the murder of civilians, and holding Netanyahu to an exceedingly higher standard than Abbas is the soft bigotry of low expectations.
A rightwing Israeli prime minister who presides over the narrowest possible coalition in the Knesset and is under constant assault from those to his right, whose commitment to two states is in question, and who has spent decades caving to the most irredentist elements of his party and coalition, has now halted new settlement growth, banned elected officials from the Temple Mount in an effort to protect exclusive Muslim rights on the site, and has so far refrained from a large and public show of force in the West Bank in response to multiple firebomb attacks, shootings, and stonings, all in recognition of the fact that the volume must be turned down in a major way. While some of these actions may be less just than others (and the Temple Mount issue in particular is one that I will write about in depth next week), they all point to a prime minister putting pragmatism over politics for the moment. Shalev opens his otherwise depressing column by noting how anyone watching Anwar Sadat emerge from his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in November 1977 could not help but believe that miracles do happen, and that it showed how calamity could transform into opportunity. Let’s hope that Netanyahu’s new leaf demonstrates that history always holds open the possibility of new beginnings.
This article was originally posted in Israel Policy Forum.