If you compare the declarations made in recent days by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers to the assessments of the heads of the security services, you might get the impression that each group is operating in its own alternative reality, one totally divorced from that the of other group. While Netanyahu and his ministers are describing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as bearing the primary responsibility for the recent outbreak of terror in Jerusalem, senior defense officials still see him as the primary hope for preventing this confrontation from spreading throughout the West Bank.
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After the Har Nof synagogue massacre last week, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett went so far as to call Abbas one of the greatest terrorists ever produced by the Palestinian people. Over the weekend, in a Channel 2 interview, Bennett called on Israel to stop talking about occupation and to launch an anti-terror offensive in Jerusalem and the territories. Bennett’s remarks about Abbas, like similar ones made by other ministers, were in sharp contrast to the declaration by Shin Bet security service head Yoram Cohen that Abbas is not encouraging terror, overtly or covertly.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon tried to bridge this gap by arguing that Cohen’s remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee were leaked to the media in a distorted fashion for political reasons. Ya’alon added: “Abu Mazen [Abbas] fears the possibility of terror in the West Bank because he understands that he will be deposed by it. On the other hand, one cannot ignore his incitement with regard to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem. There is no contradiction here: On the one hand, Abbas is not masterminding terror. On the other hand, [he] is inciting violence in Jerusalem.”
The heads of the security services are less critical of Abbas. Somewhat unusually, there is a broad consensus among them; they are categorically against collective punishment in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and oppose bringing Israel Defense Forces soldiers into the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem (something Bennett is demanding outright), while agreeing that the religious component of the conflict – the dispute over the Temple Mount, but also the inspiration coming from the Islamic State’s atrocities – is gaining weight, though it hasn’t overwhelmed the Palestinian anger over the continuing occupation.
With regard to violence, Israeli intelligence officials see Abbas as a restraining factor, not an inflammatory one. His security forces are still taking part in keeping the West Bank calm. While Abbas did issue a rather weak condemnation of last week’s murder of worshipers in Jerusalem, they note that one cannot ignore that his words came the same day that the Jordanian parliament declared a moment of silence in memory of the murderers – not the victims – in the Jerusalem attack. And this is a state that has had a peace treaty with Israel for 20 years and has been getting more assistance from Israel than ever.
Preserving the restraint systems in the West Bank depends on the continued functioning of the Palestinian security forces, the economic situation, and the ability of the Israeli security forces to prevent the resumption of organized terrorism, in addition to the wave of attacks by “lone wolves.” For now the military wing of Hamas is in a bad state and continues to absorb waves of arrests by both Israel and the PA.
Still, a broader intifada could be ignited if there is a religious incident on the Temple Mount, or as a result of the gradual deterioration in the diplomatic sphere. Abbas now seems firm about asking the UN Security Council to give the Palestinians the status of a member state. At the end of the week the Arab League is slated to discuss the matter, and after that there is expected to be an official Jordanian request for this on behalf of the Palestinians.
Such moves, like other terror attacks, may have serious economic implications for the Palestinians. Israel may once again stop forwarding the taxes it collects on its behalf (which means the PA’s civil servants won’t get paid) or drastically reduce the number of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements. For all these reasons, senior intelligence officials speak of, at best, giving the diplomatic echelons some breathing space to progress before another outbreak, perhaps sometime next year. This assessment is quite different from the barrage of patriotic declarations coming from Jerusalem that seem more geared to the home crowd on the right as elections approach, than to the doubtful Palestinian partners.