The Quietly Ticking Time Bomb on Israel’s Doorstep

If Israel remains stubborn and refuses to resume talks it will embark on a course that could result in a renewal of terrorism in Israeli cities.

Reuters

The forecasts Israel has been making since last week – when the talks aimed at prolonging negotiations with the Palestinian Authority fell apart – are out of place. It’s true that the PA leadership made impossible demands at the last minute, just when the Israelis and Americans thought a deal to extend talks was on the horizon. But even now, after senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub’s interrogators on Channel 2’s news magazine were smart enough to restore our national pride, things remain pretty much as they were.

If Israel remains stubborn and closes the door on the talks – as right-wing cabinet ministers are demanding – it will embark on a course that could very likely result in a renewal of terrorism in Israeli cities.

It won’t happen tomorrow morning, because the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service are better equipped than ever before to deal with terrorist attacks. Also, the current Palestinian leadership tends to shy away from suicide bombings, unlike the previous government led by Yasser Arafat in September 2000.

But the combination of a less-than-promising diplomatic horizon and an economic recession in the West Bank (which could worsen if the PA loses economic aid), could lead to a replay of the second intifada. It’s a quietly ticking time bomb, and Israel’s security chiefs are aware of it – even if the politicians choose to ignore it. The relative quiet in the West Bank, which has gradually been deteriorating since last summer, faces a clear and present danger, unless at least a slight glimmer of hope can be preserved.

As in many aspects of Israel’s relations with its neighbor, there is a clear gap between the public rhetoric of the past few days and the various courses of action Israel has at its disposal to combat renewed tensions with the Palestinians.

Despite the Israeli threats and calls for a counterattack that started last week after the Palestinians signed up for 15 international treaties, Israel’s actual ability to combat the steps taken by the Palestinians are pretty limited.

While Netanyahu weighs these options, he will have to take into account not only the condemnation he will receive from the U.S. administration and European Union, but also the possible damage he could cause to the security cooperation with Palestinian authorities in the West Bank. Extreme steps could snap the branch on which sits not only the PA but Israel as well.

This possible danger affects primarily the relations between the IDF, the Shin Bet and Palestinian security services. Israeli security forces rely on the Palestinians in many arenas: from the ongoing intelligence cooperation to the fight against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, as well as preserving law and order in the areas around Palestinian cities – primarily those near IDF bases and settlements.

Israel faces a rather slim choice of sanctions it could enact against the PA, at least as long as Israel wants to keep the possibility of renewed tensions in check (and assuming, of course, that this remains a joint interest for both the PA and Israel).

The possible moves Israel has mentioned so far are fairly minor, and include primarily canceling certain benefits that have been promised to the Palestinians – like an improvement in cellular infrastructure; canceling already-approved plans to benefit Palestinians in Area C; and threats to conduct all relations with the PA through the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), as opposed to diplomatic channels.

That last option is mostly symbolic, but was also mentioned by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni when she claimed on Saturday that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to prove once again that he is a partner. Her remarks were reminiscent of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s statement that there was no Palestinian partner for peace, upon his return from the failed Camp David summit in 2000.

On the Palestinian side, these latest official declarations – especially declarations from Livni’s negotiating partner, Saeb Erekat – are about the willingness to engage in popular resistance to the occupation “by peaceful means” (in Palestinian terms, this means primarily protests, which could be accompanied by stone throwing or even firebombs).

At the same time, the PA has been winking at Hamas, after a prolonged period of no contact in their seemingly endless reconciliation talks. But despite the threatening tones, it seems the Palestinian leadership doesn’t really want to see renewed terror, as the Palestinians have paid a heavy price for it in the past.

The deal that seemed possible last week – continuing negotiations, releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard – has probably been shot down for good. But the American mediators still have a little more than three weeks to find a solution before the time allotted for the talks ends.