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Netanyahu’s Escalation: Why Bibi’s Two-State Rebuke Promises More Violence

Speaking bluntly in the past three weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has unequivocally ruled out a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a speech at Tel Aviv University on June 29, Netanyahu announced that any peace agreement would include Israeli military control of the West Bank “for a very long time.” Netanyahu repeated himself on July 11, saying at a Hebrew language press conference, “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

Uttered in the midst of war, couched in the language of national security, Netanyahu’s statement seems to promise less violence. But its unequivocal implications –that Palestinians will never enjoy sovereignty– threatens to undermine a decade of non-violent Palestinian politics in the West Bank.

To understand the danger of Netanyahu’s dismissal of the two-state solution, consider that even before the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed last month were confirmed dead, Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Lt. Colonel Peter Lerner described the kidnapping as “the most substantial terrorist attack in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] in recent years.” As tragic and unacceptable as the kidnapping is, its status as the most severe incident of Palestinian violence indicates how earnestly Palestinian political leaders and the general public have embraced non-violence, even in the face of a grinding military occupation now in its fifth decade.

For many observers, Palestinian nationalism is synonymous with terrorism. Writing in Haaretz this month, senior fellow and director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at NYU Law, Thane Rosenbaum, defined Palestinians by “airline hijackings, Black September’s Munich massacre, Fedayeen night raids on Israeli villages, letter bombs detonating at Israeli embassies, [and] explosions on commuter buses.”

This may be an indisputable tally of the worst incidents of Palestinian violence. It is not an accurate portrayal of Palestinian politics in the West Bank over the past decade. While the Second Intifada of 2000-04 cost the lives of 764 Israeli civilians, the avowedly non-violent Mahmoud Abbas has worked closely with Israeli security forces to combat Palestinian terrorism since he became President of the Palestinian Authority in 2004. Marginalized militant factions have succeeded in killing only 35 Israeli civilians in the West Bank in the past eight years. [Suffering should never be subject to comparative study, but 1,099 Palestinian civilians died during the Second Intifada, and 179 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank since 2009].

For those who define Palestinians by unrepresentative acts of violence, it is easy to overlook that in the past decade, West Bank Palestinians decidedly ended armed struggle to support the Fatah Party’s strategy of achieving statehood through U.S.-led negotiations and U.N. diplomacy. Without appreciating the tremendous vulnerability this strategy has entailed for both Palestinian political leaders and the general public, it is impossible to understand the danger to peace and stability implied by Netanyahu’s dismissal of Palestinian hopes for sovereignty.

Post-Second Intifada Palestinian politics began in 2004 when Abbas secured the PA Presidency with his unique combination of the street credibility of a founding member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the vision of an experienced negotiator and aspiring peacemaker. Campaigning in a suit –instead of the military uniform of Yasser Arafat– Abbas promised to implement George W. Bush’s Roadmap to Peace, which called for the Palestinian Authority to police militants in exchange for an Israeli end to settlement construction.

Abbas’ decade of leadership has been defined by a classic peacemaker’s dilemma: how to work with Israel to combat extremism, while not losing credibility with a Palestinian public that is itself the frequent victim of unpunished Israeli violence. Abbas’ gamble has been that he could walk this tightrope long enough to secure a peace deal. Between 2006 and 2008, Abbas met with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert thirty-six times, ultimately crafting the outline of a comprehensive agreement on borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return.

A Palestinian man sits near Israel’s controversial separation barrier dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

When negotiations broke down with Netanyahu in 2009 after corruption charges pushed Olmert from office, and again in 2010 after Netanyahu defied the Obama administration’s request to cease settlement construction, Abbas took his diplomatic strategy to the United Nations by launching the Palestine 194 Campaign for non-member observer state status.

It has not only been elite educated Palestinians in Ramallah who pursued non-violent strategies in the past decade. In communities throughout the West Bank, Palestinians have taken to peaceful demonstrations against military rule. In Bil’in, Palestinians have marched every Friday since February 2005 in defiance of the expropriation of half of the community’s farmland by the neighboring Modiin Illit settlement. In Nabi Saleh, weekly marches have protested a similar expropriation of land, and the denial of basic civil rights by military rule. Other methods of Palestinian non-violent activism have included barricading roads on which Palestinians are not permitted to drive, mass prayer events, and hunger strikes.

Because Israeli Military Executive Order 101 outlaws political demonstrations of more than ten Palestinians in the West Bank, these (mostly) peaceful demonstrations have become acts of civil disobedience. The Israeli Defense Forces shut down these and the many other similar protests across the West Bank each week with an occasionally lethal, always precarious, combination of tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, water cannon-fired ‘skunk’ liquid, and –sometimes– live fire.

Israel’s right-wing governing coalition has been put in a difficult political position by the insistence on non-violent strategies of both the Palestinian political leadership and the general public. As one senior Israeli military official told an American counterpart in 2011: “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” Indeed, video footage of IDF violence against unarmed Palestinian civilians has become common online, and IDF public statements and internal communications have confirmed policies of violent collective punishment and targeting of peaceful demonstrators.

Israeli’s draconian reaction to Palestinian use of international institutions to achieve statehood illustrates the depth of its perceived vulnerability to non-violent tactics. In 2012, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman referred to the Palestine 194 Campaign as “diplomatic terrorism.” Israel has also threatened to withhold the tax funds it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf if it seeks standing at the International Criminal Court.

This spring, the Netanyahu government was put further on the defensive by the failure of peace talks, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed on Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Abbas appeared to be the consummate compromiser, ready to concede the right of return and accept a demilitarized Palestinian, while Netanyahu’s coalition could not even cease building Israeli settlements on what is ostensibly the territory of a future Palestinian state.

While Abbas has succeeded in generating American and international frustration with the Netanyahu government, he has not been able to deliver on his promise of statehood or mitigate the cost of military occupation to his own people. Since he assumed office, the Israeli settler population has grown by nearly 50%, from approximately 441,827 to as many as 650,000. Settler violence has also increased: in the first half of 2013 alone, the U.N. found more than two-hundred incidents of settler-perpetrated violence against Palestinian civilians. According to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, 91% of complaints of settler violence since 2005 were closed without indictment. These figures do not include official security operations, such as the 7,000 Palestinian children processed since 2004 in Israel’s military detention system, which UNICEF has described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

So well before the six Palestinian deaths and massive property destruction of Operation Brothers’ Keeper, many West Bank Palestinians were beginning to lose patience with Abbas’ patient diplomacy. Now, Netanyahu’s apparent closing of the book on the two-state solution creates even more obstacles to Abbas’ commitment to non-violent politics.

With no reason to believe that its strategy will ultimately lead to sovereignty, public anger toward Abbas’ Fatah Party and Palestinian Authority is rising. During Operation Brothers’ Keeper, frustration with the PA boiled over into vandalism against PA police cars, and violent clashes between Palestinian police and demonstrations.

Khalil Shikaki, the premier Palestinian pollster and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told the New York Times that the Israeli military campaign in the West Bank would likely increase the popularity of Hamas, and, if it escalated, cause Abbas to “worry about losing control.” As Palestinian civilians suffer property destruction against hundreds of homes, businesses, and civil society organizations while Netanyahu dashes dreams of Palestinian sovereignty, Abbas’ high-minded diplomacy looks less and less effective. Fatah official Muhammad Al-Madani told the Times of Israel at the height of Operation Brothers’ Keeper, “We don’t know where things will go if the operation continues like this.”

The concerns have not only been voiced by Palestinians. Israel’s recently resigned top intelligence official, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, has spoken out about the twin destabilizing threats of excessive military force and the end of negotiations. Writing on his Facebook page last month, Diskin warned about the possibility of undermining Abbas by the use of excessive force in the West Bank: “I’ve been reading experts recommending the use of force against Abu Mazen and Palestinians in general to solve all the problems [and] I don’t accept this…statements about using more force, as if we haven’t, and don’t continue to use force on a regular basis, are wrong.” Diskin went on to say that because “the two-state solution is the only solution,” the Netanyahu government should seek to reduce violence by re-engaging negotiations.

What Diskin understands is that the decade of relative stability in the West Bank has been premised on the expectation that Abbas’ diplomatic strategy will ultimately deliver statehood. The Israeli Prime Minister’s defiant dismissal of Palestinian hopes for sovereignty undermines the staying power of Abbas and like-minded moderates in the West Bank.

When Netanyahu articulated his vision of indefinite Israeli military occupation in the West Bank last month, he expressed concern that Palestinian sovereignty would “probably lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the takeover of radical Islamic forces.” The irony of his view is that the force most likely to undermine Palestinian moderates is the promise of permanent Israeli military occupation which he has issued.