Palestinians Discover the Strength of Soft Power

Amos Harel
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Amos Harel

U.S. President Barack Obama's carefully timed attack last week on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was apparently the first seed. The disputes will continue after Netanyahu's expected election victory Tuesday. Obama may have an interest in keeping a low profile on the Iranian threat, but not on the peace process.

In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency will release its latest report documenting Tehran's progress in enriching uranium for a nuclear bomb. In a report in August, the IAEA said Iran had diverted some of its 20-percent enriched uranium toward medical research.

This information was complemented by heavy American pressure calling on Israel to refrain from attacking Iran before the U.S. presidential election last November. As a result, in his UN speech in September, Netanyahu deferred the Israeli "deadline" for a possible military action until spring or summer 2013.

Meanwhile, despite the stiffening international sanctions on Iran, there is no proof the policy led by the United States is blocking Iran's nuclear efforts. The IAEA findings are likely to produce even stiffer sanctions in the spring, ahead of Iran's presidential election in June. Thus, the next confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem is likely to come in the early summer; Netanyahu still sounds committed to a military operation.

Obama seems to lack an incentive to quarrel with Netanyahu on Iran. The president continues to give Israel aid, a fact that led Defense Minister Ehud Barak to take the unusual step of praising Obama on the eve of an election, despite the tensions between the White House and Netanyahu.

The West Bank is a completely different matter. Here Obama has every reason to continue to blast Netanyahu, whether before or after the Israeli election.

The West Bank is not about to break out in a third intifada. But two trends have taken shape over the past two weeks that might put Israel's next government in an awkward position, particularly because of the hostility in Washington and West Europe toward Netanyahu's Palestinian policies.

Two trends

The first trend involves the separation fences with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where four unarmed Palestinians were killed in one week. The deaths of two Palestinians who approached the Gaza fence (the Israel Defense Forces denies any link to one of the incidents ) didn't cause a storm, mainly because Hamas wants to preserve the cease-fire. But the incidents in the West Bank, one in the village of Budrus near Ramallah and the other south of Hebron, are different. In both cases, Israeli soldiers opened fire - and without warrant, according to preliminary investigations.

Such mistakes have been made repeatedly over the years; they usually stem from the overenthusiasm of low-ranking officers who lose control of their soldiers - who are in no real danger anyway. Incidents happen, for example, when IDF troops are running after stone-throwers. To prevent such incidents, the IDF needs to supervise its troops better, launch criminal proceedings when necessary, and clarify the rules of engagement.

Israel has no answer to the second trend. It is linked to the so-called Bab al-Shams outpost, which Palestinian activists and left-wing Israelis and foreigners have put up the in E-1 corridor. The Netanyahu government has designated this area for a neighborhood that will connect Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. On Wednesday, the police evicted several dozen activists from the site, for the second time in a week. On Friday, some 400 Palestinian and foreign activists set up a new protest camp near the village of Beit Iksa, which they called Al-Karaa.

For the Palestinians, such an outpost is an ideal platform for a popular struggle. Such efforts are nonviolent, so they won't draw criticism from overseas, especially considering Israel's intentions to build in the area.

The (first ) rapid evacuation of activists, which Netanyahu boasted about this week, reflects the government's faulty handling of the outpost issue over the past 15 years (though in recent years, the policy has been to prevent settlers from establishing outposts in the first place ). Such efforts by the Palestinians win much more sympathy than the sometimes violent incidents along the border; they certainly stir more sympathy than clear acts of terror.

A third intifada?

For months now there has been talk in Israel about a third intifada. Even if this happens, it's not certain events will develop as they did in the past. Before the first intifada broke out in December 1987, Palestinian activists talked about a nonviolent popular revolt. But West Bank residents paid a heavy price for the suicide bombings of the second intifada that erupted in 2000.

There is no doubt: There is much support in the West Bank for another armed struggle. But demonstrations of "soft power" such as the first Palestinian outpost hit Israel's government in a weak spot, and we can expect more. Palestinian newspapers are already calling the action "the Bab al-Shams intifada."

Jack Khoury contributed to this report.

A protester at the Palestinians’ protest camp last week. A new one was built Friday.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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