Abbas Caught Between Israel’s Intransigence and ‘Stabbing Intifada’.
Michael A. Cohen |Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015
The Israel-Palestine conflict, with all its recurring violence, often seems like the broken record of international affairs. Still this latest wave of lone-wolf Palestinian terrorist attacks followed by predictably harsh Israeli reprisals—and mutual recriminations from both sides that the other is responsible—should come as no surprise. With the collapse of peace talks, the re-election of a right-wing Israeli government opposed to a two-state solution, the continued corruption and dysfunction of the Palestinian leadership and the lack of any realistic path to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the chickens have once again come home to roost in the Middle East.
| Palestinian kicks a tear gas canister that was fired by Israeli troops during clashes|
near Ramallah, West Bank, Oct. 20, 2015
That statement should not be taken as a defense of Abbas. His actions and statements over the past few weeks have been irresponsible and reckless. His dubious claims that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount—also home to the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site—and his near celebration of terror attacks by Palestinians, have dangerously raised tensions.
But it takes some major denial on the part of Israel’s supporters to argue that Palestinian terrorists are merely doing Abbas’ bidding. Indeed, just a few years ago Jerusalem saw a wave of violence similar to what has occurred in the past few weeks, in which several Orthodox rabbis were savagely stabbed in a Jerusalem synagogue.
Then as now, the driver of violence was not incitement by Abbas or religious fervor over the status of the Old City, as some have argued, but rather desperation and hopelessness—and no one has contributed to that sentiment more than the current Israeli government.
As Noam Sheizaf points out in +972 Magazine, an Israeli news and opinion site, it’s hardly a coincidence that of the 49 Palestinians responsible for the latest attacks, 31 are from Jerusalem or Hebron. These are the two places that arguably suffer the humiliation and frustration of occupation more than any other communities in Palestine.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest surprise about the current wave of violence is that it didn’t happened sooner. Jerusalem is a tinderbox and one that has been made more flammable by Israel’s actions. Though the 300,000 residents of East Jerusalem have Israeli identity cards, the overwhelming majority are not citizens. They have virtually no political rights. Three-quarters live under the poverty line. City services are abysmal: More than one in three residents are not connected to the water network; 43 percent of classrooms are considered inadequate; and close to a third of Palestinians are isolated in a no-man’s land by Israel’s security fence between Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority.
It’s bad enough that the Israeli government has rejected the two-state solution and largely dismissed the Palestinian Authority as a potential negotiating partner. But by ignoring the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians themselves and, in particular, the residents of East Jerusalem, they’ve thrown gasoline on the fire.
Imagine, for a moment, a different reality, one in which Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, for all their faults, had been treated as a potential partner for peace and a strategic counterweight to Hamas and other Palestinian radical groups. Imagine if the Palestinian Authority had received something tangible in return for its proven commitment to security cooperation and preventing terrorism against Israel, such as a path to self-determination or even a commitment from Israel to end settlement expansion.
Imagine if Netanyahu had recognized that Israel’s surest path to long-term security was a partnership with Abbas, one committed to ending terrorism and politically minimizing Hamas. There would almost certainly still be violence emanating from the territories, but the difference would be that the Palestinian Authority would be even more committed to preventing attacks than its current high level of cooperation already demonstrates. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be no panacea, and the reluctance on both sides to countenance difficult concessions runs deep. But can anyone who is not ideologically committed to a one-state solution for their side seriously argue that such a scenario would be worse than the current untenable situation?
Be that as it may, the unfortunate reality is something else altogether. Instead of painful compromise, we’ve seen powerful demagoguery. Unceasing efforts on the part of Israeli leaders, and in particular Netanyahu, to demonize Abbas with names like “inciter in chief” and “terrorist in a suit” have not only pushed him away, but they’ve also encouraged his irresponsibility.
Nonetheless, today, caught between a population frustrated by the Palestinian Authority’s complete inability to end the Israeli occupation through negotiations on one side and an Israeli government proudly disinterested in peace on the other, Abbas has few other political options than to play to Palestinian grievances. After all, a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and 78 percent believe the chances of a Palestinian state emerging any time soon are slim to none. The dissatisfaction and anger among Palestinians is not limited to Jerusalem or Hebron—it is endemic across the occupied territories.
Playing the role of responsible stakeholder, maintaining security cooperation that overwhelmingly benefits Israel and keeping the Palestinian Authority intact are all politically impossible positions to maintain when the Israeli government refuses to provide anything in return to Abbas. Yet, it must be noted that Abbas has largely stuck to his commitments, in particular on security cooperation. Indeed, according to Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Abbas is “instructing his security forces to prevent terror attacks as much as possible.”
One can actually marvel at Abbas’ restraint, or perhaps his fecklessness, in maintaining the status quo.
But this situation won’t continue forever. Abbas, the Palestinian political leader most committed to a two-state solution and nonviolence, is not a young man, and eventually he will leave the scene. In the meantime, the daily humiliations and frustrations of the Palestinians will increase and drive more people to take matters into their own bloody hands—and the cycle will play itself out again.
The way to break this seemingly unending progression of violence is staring Israelis and Palestinians in the face, and has been for years, which only makes the recent needless and tragic deaths on both sides of the Green Line that much worse.
Michael A. Cohen's WPR column, Reality Check, appears every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.