Palestinian Political Crisis Worries Israel No Less Than Terror Wave

Abbas is continuing to restrain his people, but it’s clear that the president – along with all the other players in the Palestinian arena – is already engaged in a political countdown.

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Palestinians facing off against Israeli troops in Hebron, November 2015.
Palestinians facing off against Israeli troops in Hebron, November 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The public discussion of the wave of violence in the territories seems, in a way, to resemble the attitude toward the big sandstorm that swept over Israel midweek, the second such storm within two months. The terrorist attacks are of course infinitely more dangerous, but both phenomena involve surprising events that struck the country and are making life difficult for now. And as with the adverse weather, there’s a lurking suspicion that what is going on is somehow connected to the upheaval that has shaken the Arab world around us for almost five years. (The previous storm, in September, was said to be a result of Syrian farmers having abandoned their land, as a result of the civil war, causing accelerated desertification.) Still, the hope is that the violence will pass at some point, just as the sand and dust will, only probably more slowly.

One group that does not buy this forecast is the Israeli intelligence community. Even though the intensity and frequency of the terror attacks have been decreasing over the past two weeks, and most of the events are now taking place in or to the north of the Hebron area – the almost unanimous assessment of intelligence experts is that a new situation has been created, one that’s liable to persist for a long time. True, they acknowledge that an effective local response in Jerusalem (diplomatic persuasion regarding the Temple Mount and a reinforced police presence in Palestinian neighborhoods) has succeeded in stemming the wave of violence, and that there is no critical mass in the West Bank as yet capable of reprising the previous two intifadas. But intelligence officials are pessimistic about the long-range situation. Their impression is that the mechanism of constraints that Israel and the Palestinian Authority imposed, and that kept the West Bank more or less stable for a decade, is unraveling. It will thus be difficult to restore the calm and retain stability in the long term, and a very real potential exists for a more severe flare-up, even if quiet prevails in the short run.

According to one intelligence analysis presented to the security cabinet, this change is related both to the approach taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the future of the negotiations with Israel, and to the fact that his rule has entered its twilight phase. For most of the period since succeeding Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Abbas has advocated a solution in the Oslo spirit: political negotiations whose ultimate aim is the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution. The failure of the initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in March 2014, however, reinforced a shift that had already begun in Abbas’ approach and, concomitantly, in his policy as well. His new message, which resonated in his speech to the UN General assembly in September, is that the Palestinian state is already here, an existing fact. If Israel wants to anchor this situation in a final-status political agreement, its leaders should let him know. In the meantime, the Palestinians will go on doing their thing, while adopting a militant stance in the institutions of the international community.

Abbas presented this policy in his UN speech, and in so doing also signaled to the young generation in the territories that it was now up to them to lead. The message, heard loud and clear, came at a time of already-existing tensions over the Temple Mount. When the violence was unleashed, in early October, with the murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin, Abbas did not immediately intervene: Senior PA figures, notably in the Tanzim – Fatah’s militant, grass-roots movement – engaged in open anti-Israeli incitement, but he preferred to keep mum. Only when he saw he was losing control and the Tanzim were becoming more active in organizing violent marches aimed at provoking confrontations with Israeli troops outside Palestinian cities, did Abbas order the Tanzim unequivocally to cease and desist.

That did not stop the surge of knifing attacks, most of which have been perpetrated by young people unaffiliated with any organization, but it at least reduced the scope of the mass clashes with the army in the West Bank. Even now, a month after Abbas laid down the law, the position of the Tanzim is still considered critical with regard to future developments. They are the fulcrum: If the Tanzim returns to the confrontational front, its members will take their weapons with them. And because the Tanzim is, after the PA’s security forces, the largest armed body in the West Bank (many activists play a part in both organizations) – the consequences could be dire.

In the meantime, Abbas is continuing to restrain his people. But even so, it’s clear that the president – along with all the other players in the Palestinian arena – is already engaged in a political countdown. The open discussion of Abbas’ anticipated retirement and the struggle for succession that will develop in its wake are weakening him. It also appears that Israel is less worried about the immediate implications of the wave of violence, which is continuing at middling intensity, than about the anarchy that could descend on the West Bank as a result of an internal political crisis among the Palestinians. Because the PA is also facing growing economic problems, there is also a possibility that the interplay between those pressures will cause the PA to abandon its responsibility altogether, with the result that Israel will be sucked in again, against its will, to a position of assuming full rule over the West Bank population.

A new triangle

The annual battle between the Finance Ministry and the defense establishment over the size of the defense budget might end a bit differently this time. At the height of the storm over the report issued by the committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, the treasury and the defense establishment were smart enough to set up a back channel that might allow for far-reaching agreements on the structure of the defense budget.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot have met twice in recent days and talks are also underway between Defense Ministry director general Dan Harel and senior treasury officials. The meetings were initiated by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, in the wake of the Locker committee’s recommendations last July. One possibility being discussed is reduction of compulsory service for men to 30 months. Reaching a comprehensive accord, however, will entail working out an agreed-upon plan about pension arrangements for retirees from the career army – a hurdle that has yet to be surmounted.

The report by the Locker’s committee, which was roundly criticized by Ya’alon and senior IDF officers, was ambitious in its recommendations. For one thing, it called for the defense budget to be set at 59 billion shekels (about $15 billion) a year (contingent on streamlining by the army), the dismissal of another 4,000 career-army personnel, the reduction of compulsory service from 32 months to 28 months, and uniting the ground forces with the technology and logistics directorate in the General Staff.

However, the recommendation that drew the most intense reaction involved a revision of the IDF pension format. The committee recommended that the great majority of retirees who are still covered by the existing model (i.e., those who were drafted before 2003) no longer receive a so-called bridging pension from the date when one can retire from the career army, in one's 40s, to the standard retirement age of age 67, but rather only a flat retirement grant, which would be considerably lower.

Locker also proposed that the only career personnel who would still be covered by the old policy would be officers who held combat positions up to the rank of battalion commander (or its equivalent in the navy and air force). For its part, the IDF claimed that such a measure would seriously affect the terms of service and, accordingly, also the motivation of staff officers and officers in auxiliary units (such as munitions and logistics, as well as intelligence officers who serve in combat units). The army agreed to a compromise that would reduce the number of drivers who enjoy a bridging pension, but wanted to maintain the benefits at least for officers up to the rank of major in the combat branches.

In the Kahlon-Eisenkot meetings, the possibility was raised that the army would retract most of its objections to the Locker committee’s pension recommendations, but only if the new arrangement was also applied to the other security organizations: the police, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. The IDF and Defense Ministry now want to see a committee created to discuss the details of applying the new arrangement to all these organizations simultaneously. The treasury has proposed a plan whereby, after the pension arrangement is implemented in the IDF, the other organizations are added to it further down the line. No agreement has been reached on this so far, and there are also still disagreements about whether officers will be able to go on enjoying the bridging pension. Without a resolution to the pension problem, other understandings that were arrived at will not be implemented.

The talks between the sides were conducted secretly until Haaretz broke the story yesterday, though Kahlon alluded to them indirectly a few days ago when he said he hopes that “reforms we never dreamed of” will be achieved. A final accord between the defense establishment and the treasury apparently depends on whether the differences over the pension arrangement can be overcome, and particularly on whether the new policy is applied to the other security organizations.

There is one issue on which the defense establishment will brook no compromise: This week, with the support of a united coalition-opposition front, the plan to approve a reduced defense budget of 56 billion shekels for 2016 was scuttled in the Knesset’s joint committee for the state budget. That was basically a symbolic declaration, but it reflected the chief of staff’s unwillingness to play the budget game by the old rules. An agreement is apparently shaping up with the treasury for a larger budget, if other issues are resolved. The final sum could be 60 billion shekels, which is what the defense establishment would receive next year in any case, in the light of the needs that will inevitably crop up.

The emergence of a new triangle – Ya’alon, Kahlon, Eisenkot – affords a rare opportunity to create order in the continuing melee surrounding the defense budget: to reach long-term agreements, to allow the IDF to start implementing a five-year plan at long last, and possibly also to rectify a years-long policy of exaggerated pension outlays by reducing and unifying units of the different security branches. But many are skeptical, and the truth is that it’s still too soon to bet on the success of the effort.

Saving President Bashar

The United States finally decides to put an end to the protracted slaughter in Syria and take active steps to remove the tyrant Bashar Assad from power. The Americans suggest to a Syrian general, from Assad’s Alawite community, that he take over and thereby ensure the community’s safety. Israel learns about the scheme and warns Washington against ambitious moves that will end in failure. The Americans refuse to heed the warning, and the general, who had been with his daughter at an emergency operation at a Swiss hospital, flies back to Syria in the hope of becoming the new ruler. But something goes wrong: Someone plants a bomb on the general’s plane, and he is killed when it blows up. Yet another hopeful project by Washington ends in bitter disappointment for all concerned.

This is a fictitious scenario, for the time being. But the scriptwriter of the fifth season of the television series “Homeland” wasn’t really allowing his imagination run away with him. The American series, some of whose creators are Israelis, is this time focusing on the upheaval in the Arab world and its implications for Europe – and seems to have come straight out of the newspapers of the past few weeks. In fact, production ended last summer, and even the “Homeland” scriptwriters were unable to anticipate the immense change that would take place in Syria: Russia’s increasing intervention on behalf of Assad.

The massive Russian aerial offensive in northern Syria against various rebels continued this week, too. Targets in southern Syria were also bombed, though on a smaller scale. The Russians say the attacks are concentrated in Daraa, where the uprising began nearly five years ago. In practice, however, some of the bombing runs have been close to the border with Israel in the Golan Heights, some of them at Tel Hara, which is remembered by generations of IDF officers from the years when the army deployed for the possibility that the Syrians would one day reprise Yom Kippur 1973. But the Syrian 5th Division hasn’t been in the area for a long time; Tel Hara, which lies 18 kilometers from the Israeli border, is now a bastion of the insurgents. Still, the Russians have not made any real gains on the ground in either the north or the south. The Iranian-led alliance of Shiite militias, which was supposed to take care of the ground segment of the operation to save Assad, isn’t yet delivering the goods, apart from taking over some minor towns in the north.

Russia’s intentions are beginning to become clear on the diplomatic front. Someone has compared Moscow’s aid to Assad to fattening up a calf to raise the price for which it will be sold. The Russian intervention apparently saved Assad from a rout. It stabilized his defensive lines and prevented the continued loss of territory to the rebels around Damascus and near the Alawite salient in the northwest. But what the Russians are apparently after is a political settlement that will insure a redistribution of power in the country, with the Alawite areas to be safeguarded and Assad to be replaced by another senior Alawite figure if needed. This would be contingent on an assurance that the dictator will not be tried in the future for his regime’s war crimes. The other important partner in the alliance, Iran, sees things differently: Senior officials in Tehran made it clear this week that any solution in Syria will necessitate Assad’s continued rule.

Meanwhile, a different plane exploded. Leaks and statements, apparently coordinated, from Britain and the United States, have reinforced the suspicion that the Sinai crash last weekend was the result of deliberate sabotage. A branch of Islamic State in Sinai already claimed responsibility for downing the plane, but the mode of operation it presented (an antiaircraft missile and not an on-plane bomb) doesn’t sound reasonable given the plane’s altitude when it crashed. This might turn out to be the first time that Russia has paid a high price for its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was chosen again this week, for the second successive year, as the world’s most powerful person by Forbes magazine, it looks as though he, too, is starting to discover the depth of the Syrian quagmire.

Patrick Cockburn, a British commentator on the Middle East, aptly described the situation in Syria (and to some degree the campaign underway against Islamic State in Iraq) in the London Review of Books this week. All the parties engaged in combat there, Cockburn wrote, are too weak to win but too strong to lose. In Syria, as in Iraq, the paralyzing stalemate almost guarantees that the bloodshed will continue indefinitely.

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