September seems to be the most sensitive month for Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israeli intelligence officials say. This September, defense officials are worrying about the erratic, often belligerent behavior of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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Frustrated at the Trump administration’s Mideast policy and the international community’s apathy toward the Palestinian problem, Abbas is thinking about renewing the Palestinian Authority’s applications for acceptance into a host of international organizations. He’ll also be taking a hard line in his address to the UN General Assembly.
Moves like this could affect facts on the ground, especially during the High Holy Days and the usual tensions concerning the Temple Mount during that time. For the time being, the Palestinians have scaled back security cooperation with Israel, which could impair efforts to thwart terrorism. Defense officials increasingly feel that Israel is living on borrowed time in the territories until the next violent upheaval.
A few months ago, at the behest of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the coordinator of government activities in the territories crafted a plan for the construction of around 14,000 homes in the West Bank town of Qalqilyah in Area C, which is under full Israeli control. The proposal was designed to address the Palestinians’ economic and housing needs and to improve the strained relations with the PA.
But when the Qalqilyah housing plan was debated by the cabinet in July, the hawks in the governing coalition, led by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party with support from certain Likud ministers, blew a gasket. Lieberman and Bennett began to argue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that defense officials hadn't presented the full picture to him and said another debate would be held on the plan in two weeks.
But almost two months have passed and no such debate has taken place. The ministers suspect that the Qalqilyah housing plan has been shelved because Netanyahu realized that most of his cabinet wouldn’t back it. The Habayit Hayehudi ministers and settler leaders argue against approving the plan because of Qalqilyah’s proximity to the Trans-Israel Highway, and because it would lay the groundwork for transferring land to the Palestinians in a future peace agreement.
But defense officials say a failure to take steps benefiting the Palestinians worsens the risk of an explosion. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump asked to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas at the UN General Assembly in two weeks, thus relaunching the peace process.
The Palestinians suspect that Trump is biased in Israel's favor and can’t jump-start negotiations. Abbas is furious that Trump refuses to commit to a two-state solution, is worried about Congress enacting the Taylor Force Act (which would block economic aid to the PA because of its support for terrorists’ families), and is frustrated at the international community’s indifference to the Palestinian problem. Also, Abbas is 82 and not in rude health.
On top of preparations to join international organizations, which Washington asked the Palestinians not to do in the past, Abbas' people are yet again thinking about taking Israel to court in The Hague. Unusually, Abbas chose to be absent from the West Bank during the late-August visit to Israel and the West Bank by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Abbas was in Turkey. Guterres was left to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Speaking at the United Nations two years ago, when the peace process was as frozen as today, Abbas threatened that the Palestinians would stop fulfilling the agreements with Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The threat didn't fully materialize, but the next day a wave of terrorism broke out in Israel and the West Bank. Eventually over 40 Israelis were killed. The Israeli government linked the two events and claimed that Abbas’ speech had been interpreted as approval for escalating violence.
Security coordination between Israel and the PA hasn't recovered since the last Israeli-Palestinian meltdown, after the shooting attack in July when two Israeli policemen were killed on the Temple Mount, and after the tensions over Israel's placing of metal detectors at the Mount's entrances. At Abbas’ behest, there are hardly any high-ranking meetings between Israeli security officials and their Palestinian counterparts; these are largely limited to emergencies. In response, Israel curtailed the operations of the joint civilian council, which is important to the Palestinians.
Nor have tensions with Amman been resolved. The Jordanians are still irked after Netanyahu celebrated the return of the Israeli security guard who killed two Jordanians in an incident at the Amman embassy. The Jordanians are holding up the resuming of joint operations planned with Israel. Israeli officials suspect that if tensions on the Temple Mount erupt again, the Hashemite kingdom won’t be in a hurry to calm things down.
The events on the Temple Mount, the incident at the Amman embassy, and the controversy over the Qalqilyah development plan soured relations between Netanyahu and Israel’s security chiefs. You get the feeling that these chiefs realized that when the coalition is sweating, as investigations against the prime minister and his people gain pace, they’re on their own. And they behave accordingly.
Meanwhile, there are fears that relations with the Palestinians will spiral out of control once again, whether because of an accumulation of factors or an isolated incident as happened with the Temple Mount in July.
Meanwhile, the number of incidents in the territories has receded in recent weeks. On Thursday, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli, is moving on after two years. Carmeli had a good stint, during which he helped contain the lone-wolf terrorism that erupted in October 2015.
He is being succeeded by Eran Niv. During the second intifada, as commander of the Nahal Brigade, Niv was the officer who led the wiping out of a cell that killed 12 Israelis in a 2002 ambush in Hebron.