The political storm that was brewing earlier this week as to how progress in the peace talks will impact the future of the coalition seems to by hyped up and premature. Recent statements by U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, clarify that no serious headway has been achieved.
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If the political alliance between Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett is cracking, it is because of the failing chemistry between the two, together with the end of the momentary synchronization of interests they shared at the birth of the coalition. Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi have two conflicting constituencies with entirely different expectations. The conflict was inevitable even without the peace negotiations, which, in any case, will only lead to difficult decisions in the spring of 2014.
A central issue that the Americans dealt with recently concerns the security arrangements they offered regarding the Jordan Valley, after Israel’s retreat from most of the West Bank. U.S. officials suggest that Israeli military presence would be gradually decreased within a decade. This is coupled with a promise to improve Israeli surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and to maintain a "transparent" Israeli presence at the border. Israel has its reservations of the plan, but it seems, according to leaks from the Palestian side, that Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. envoy on security issues, Retired U.S. Gen. John Allen, are moving in this direction.
Netanyahu has good reasons to be worried about the eastern border, all surrounding the longevity of the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan. King Abdallah surprised Israel and the West by his swift and controlled response to the shock waves of the Arab Spring, and yet, doubts remain. Jordan now has to deal with a million and a half refugees from Iraq and Syria, a huge number of people for a population of six million, while containing the constant tension with the Palestinian population and the Muslim Brotherhood. This does not sound like a recipe for long term stability, and it come as no surprise that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are wary of the possibility that a hostile regime might rule Jordan in the future, despite today’s current close military cooperation between the two states.
Still, Israel’s rhetoric has taken a twist in recent weeks. In the past, Israeli governments stressed the importance of security arrangements in any future peace treaty. Now, its all about the narrative. Security arrangements in the Jordan Valley seem suddenly marginal when compared with the frequency Israeli officials complain that the Palestinians aren’t willing to reach a final agreement.
Israeli speakers, with Ya’alon standing out among them, emphasize the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and agree to an end tothe conflict and all related demands. The Israelis also point to what they consider incitement in the Palestinian press and education system. The Palestinian Authority does indeed supply Israel material to base these allegations upon.
The biggest troublemaker in this regard seems to be Jibril Rajoub. Once head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank and currently the chairman of the Palestinian Football Federation, Rajoub seems to have taken a liking to his new role as enfant terrible. It was Rajoub who recently told the stars of Barcelona FC, that Palestine would be established from “Ras Nakura (Rosh Hanikra) to Um Rasrash (Eilat).” Israel’s complaints of Palestinian incitement are presented in every meeting with foreign officials.
In retrospect, it seems that Israel made a mistake when it down played the extent and importance of incitement in the Palestinian educational system in the early days of the Oslo Accords. Still, the current emphasis on the issue seems artificial and sounds like a possible future alibi in case the talks fail, especially if a third Intifada would break out. In that event, the PA leadership could be accused of not preventing the outburst by not curbing the incitement.
Soon enough the Americans will have to decide which card to play: will they insist on trying to force a final agreement on both sides, or abandon the effort completely, shortening the route to a renewed escalation in the West Bank? The gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on core issues – Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees remain intact. But even more important is the huge gap in trust. In Jerusalem and Ramallah nobody believes that the other side is willing to make the concessions necessary for a final agreement.
An escalation in violence is not far-off. Yuval Diskin, former Head of Shin Bet, who warned of an imminent Intifada in his address to the Geneva Initiative Ten Year Conference, drew an insulting response from Netanyahu’s office. But one should heed his words: Tensions in the West Bank have been growing in recent months. Even a local incident could spark an uprising, as it did 26 years ago this week, when a truck accident in the Gaza strip set off the first Intifada.
The media in Israel often mentions Israel’s losses since September: a civilian and three IDF soldiers killed by Palestinians (one of these incidents occurred within the Green Line). The high number of recent Palestinian deaths, though, are rarely mentioned. According to B'Tselem, 15 Palestinians were killed between January and August, and only one Israeli was killed during that same period.
Since September, another 11 Palestinians were killed, the last one being a 14-year-old boy (According to recent Amira Hass articles, the kid was 15) shot in the back by IDF soldiers at the Jalazun refugee camp near Ramallah, after young Palestinian kids threw stones. This is a sharp increase in the number of deaths following similar trends in stone throwing and firebombing near West Bank roads.
Diskin is not making a mountain out of a molehill. A third Intifada remains a real possibility, even if the Palestinian public seems to not want one, in light of the heavy prices it paid for the first and second intifadas.
Netanyahu has already been praised here for the caution he usually exhibits when it comes to security matters in all areas. It’s a good bet that if previous prime ministers like Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak were forced to deal with the harsh reality of the Syrian border over the last two years, their over-activity would have already dragged Israel into a pointless war.
The criticism Olmert has recently thrown at Netanyahu for his rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear program and the crisis of relations with America are partially justified; but in reality, Netanyahu is a much more cautious prime minister than Olmert was. When Netanyahu was faced with a Gaza dilemma last November, he launched the limited military operation, “Pillar of Defense,” which was much more restrained than Olmert’s “Cast Lead.” Pillar of Defense did not include a ground operation in Gaza.
The dice continued to roll in Netanyahu’s favor later in Gaza, after the military coup in Egypt in early July of 2013. Since then, Hamas in Gaza has been forced to act under dual restraints – Israeli deterrence on one border, and surprisingly firm policies of the new Egyptian government on the other. Egypt is no doubt the more painful side of the claw currently gripping the Gaza Strip. The closing down of tunnels and the frequent threats made by Cairo’s generals against the Hamas government are making the lives of Gaza residents very difficult, and preventing Hamas from making any kind of military initiatives against Israel.
But this situation could turn around in no time at all. Egyptian economic pressure on the Gaza Strip is reaching near intolerable levels. Closing the tunnels has created a sever gasoline shortage, and financial disagreements with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah are preventing gas from flowing into Gaza at the Israeli price of less than 7 shekels per liter.
The shortage has shut down power plants in Gaza and residents go without power for 12 to 18 hours a day. It’s not just that the elevators aren’t running in multi-story buildings, but hospitals are without power as well. The water supply is also affected and waste management facilities cannot deal with the waste accumulating near refugee camps. All this alongside the Israeli decision to cease allowing construction materials into Gaza as punishment for the tunnel that was discovered near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. The IDF discovered a tunnel some 1,700 meters long that made use of 700 tons of cement meant for a future attack on Israel.
This week, Haaretz reported that Defense Minister Ya’alon decided to rescind some of the restrictions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called Ya’aon and warned him of the ramifications in Gaza if construction materials were not allowed in – and warned him of the fear that tens of thousands of Gazans could find themselves unemployed because of such a move. Ya’alon relented and allowed for cement to be supplied to UN-supervised construction projects in Gaza, after Ban Ki-Moon included a condemnation of Hamas’ tunnels in his periodic report.
However, officials serving under the defense minister are still worried that Gaza is becoming a powder keg once again, which will ignite at some point. The situation in Gaza is not currently a humanitarian crisis but the lack of services provided to residents and general economic hardships are increasing. It’s tough to know when Hamas will decide to release the restraints on the more extremist factions that want to continue firing rockets at Israel. Perhaps Hamas will choose an alternative strategy and try to incite the West Bank to actioncausing trouble for its rival, the Palestinian Authority.
The question that will rise in the near future has to do with the Americans. Which route will they choose? Will they insist on trying to force a permanent agreement on the two sides? Will they propose an interim agreement? Or will they abandon the talks altogether and hasten the road towards renewed escalations in the West Bank?