Analysis

For Netanyahu, Palestinian Hunger Strike Is a Chance to One-up Abbas

While the prime minister has so far found a smooth way to deal with Trump, his conduct in relation to the Europeans has been much more cynical

A demonstrator throws back a teargas canister during clashes after a protest, in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Hebron, Thursday, April 27, 2017.
Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

The hunger strike by Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons, now in its 12th day, is struggling to take off. The Israel Prisons Service says 1,160 prisoners, most of them from Fatah, are still taking part in the hunger strike. Participation by Hamas prisoners is minimal. Overall, the numbers have declined by 15 percent from the beginning of the hunger strike.

Hunger strike leader Marwan Barghouti was transferred by the Prisons Service from Hadarim Prison in the Sharon area to solitary confinement in Kishon Prison near Haifa. A number of prisoners who were formerly housed with Barghouti and were active in organizing the strike have now been dispersed between other prisons.

Barghouti apparently foresaw this move, as he left detailed instructions and messages with his wife and his lawyers in Ramallah before the strike began. But as none of the hunger strikers has as yet been found to be dangerously ill, and there have been no widely reported confrontations, and even in Palestinian-controlled areas interest in what is happening in the prisons is quite muted. The Palestinian public is still relatively indifferent, despite its broad support for the prisoners’ demands for improvements in the conditions of their incarceration as well as doing away with arrests without trial, the so-called administrative detentions.

Fatah did declare a "Day of Rage" in the West Bank on Thursday, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas probably wasn’t so keen on the move, as he views Barghouti as vying too blatantly to succeed him, and Abbas already has his hands full preparing for his meeting next week in Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump. A few days ago, Abbas canceled a scheduled speech in which he was expected to comment on the prisoners’ strike and on the crisis between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza.

To date, international interest in the strike has been limited too. The Western media is largely focused on the two rounds of the French presidential election and the fears of more terror attacks in Europe after the recent incident in which an ISIS supporter fatally shot a police officer on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. And the Arab world has much worse troubles of its own, from Syria to Yemen.

A demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners, Kishon Prison, April 26, 2017.
Rami Shllush

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the hunger strike offered an opportunity to gain an advantage in the diplomatic arena. Netanyahu, who this week called on the PA to halt its financial aid to the security prisoners and compensation for the families of terrorists who were killed, knows this has no chance of happening now. Disavowing the ethos of the Palestinian cause in this way would be political suicide for Abbas. But the present U.S. administration, which is taking a harder line on terrorism than its predecessor, may find Netanyahu’s new precondition even more convincing than that old Israeli argument against incitement in Palestinian media and textbooks. Trump is exploring the possibility of making his first visit to Israel less than a month from now. After that, one can hope there will finally be some clarity about the administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has thus far been clever about handling relations with the capricious and inexperienced American president. Netanyahu’s agreement to quickly reach understandings with the administration on some restraint in settlement construction served him well in two ways. It took the wind out of the sails of the most hawkish wing of his government, which had been urging for Trump’s victory be leveraged to abandon the two-state solution once and for all, and to annex Area C in the West Bank, which is under Israeli civil and security control. And it also was seen in Washington as an Israeli concession, thereby heightening the administration’s expectation for a parallel concession of some kind from the Palestinians. Netanyahu accomplished all this while incurring very minimal political damage at home.

Yet, while Netanyahu has so far found a smooth way to deal with Trump, his conduct in relation to the Europeans has been much more cynical, as evidenced this week by the cancellation of his meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

The leading EU nations are focusing tremendous attention on the continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, on settlement construction and on the activity of left-wing organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. So engrossed are they in these issues that they are devoting very little thought to the question of how much the leaders from both sides desire to move forward toward a final-status agreement. The correct answer is apparently: not much. Gabriel’s decision to meet with members of Breaking the Silence played into Netanyahu’s hands, and he hastened to make political hay out of it.

At the same time, Netanyahu also diverted public attention in Israel to the search for homegrown “traitors” and also further eroded whatever legitimacy remains for expressing any kind of criticism about the moral implications of the occupation. Some from the Israeli right accused Germany of hypocrisy, given that the episode blew up just as Holocaust Remembrance Day was coming to a close. They conveniently overlooked the ungratefulness shown by Netanyahu toward the Merkel government, which manufactures ships and submarines for Israel, many of which are still funded by German taxpayers.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speaks during his meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, April 25, 2017.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Toward the end of the week, Netanyahu added a distinctive touch to his offensive. The prime minister took his and his wife’s annual meeting with IDF orphans ahead of Memorial Day as an opportunity to further deride organizations “that are slandering the IDF.” This was a particularly tasteless mixing of bereavement and political score-settling coming from someone who just last week kept silent as Knesset members from his own Likud party angrily shouted at bereaved parents who lost their sons in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Empty-handed Abbas

Abbas will be coming to the White House empty-handed when the conversation there turns to another subject: Gaza. As previously reported in Haaretz, the Palestinian president has decided that he is no longer willing to provide funding for Gaza unless Hamas allows the PA to take part in running it – although when Abbas had a genuine opportunity to help with the rebuilding of Gaza after Operation Protective Edge, he avoided doing so. This is the source of the pressure being exerted by the PA on Hamas by reducing its salary payments to tens of thousands of employees in Gaza. At the same time, a major dispute has erupted between the PA and Hamas over the payment of the excise fees for the diesel fuel brought into the Gaza Strip, and this has seriously harmed the supply of electricity there. In some areas of the Gaza Strip, electricity is only available three or four hours a day now.

But Abbas’ move has not yielded any results so far. Hamas is standing firm in its refusal to hand over to the PA any authority in Gaza. If the White House chooses to cite one of Netanyahu’s favorite arguments, that there is no way to make progress with Abbas because he doesn’t truly represent all the Palestinians and has no control in Gaza, the Palestinian president will be at a loss for an answer.

The trouble for Israel is that the clash between the PA and Hamas is not a zero-sum game in which the erosion of Hamas’ standing serves the more moderate Palestinian camp, and therefore also indirectly serves Israel. When basic living conditions in Gaza are deteriorating so badly, there is no guarantee that this internal power struggle will not spill over into violence against Israel. Netanyahu himself admitted last week in the Knesset that he did not want the last war against Hamas in the summer of 2014, but was dragged into it following the kidnapping and murder in Gush Etzion of the three Israeli teens, and the escalation on the Gaza border that followed.

The slow heating up of the pressure cooker in Gaza, with the crises over salary payments and the erratic electricity supply just as summer is approaching, increases the odds of a new eruption of violence. And around here there is already a natural tendency to behave less cautiously when the temperatures outside begin to rise.

Cyber revolt

The letter sent by senior security officals concerning the Cyber Defense Authority bill indicates that an unprecedented step has taken place.

Top officials in the Shin Bet security service, including its head Nadav Argaman, and the Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, along with IDF Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan (who is responsible for cyber defense issues in the military) and Defense Ministry director general Udi Adam (on behalf of the director of security of the defense establishment), protested to the prime minister over the new Cyber Defense Authority legislation. The security officials are united in the view that concentrating more powers in the hands of the authority, at their expense, will harm national security.

The cyber defense bill has evolved through several incarnations. Its present version is also meeting reservations, mainly from the Shin Bet, but the head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister's Office, Eviatar Matania, did score a rare victory over former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen in the bureaucratic scuffle. Cohen’s successor, Argaman, is a leading critic of the current legislation.

Israel is not the only Western country to run into problems trying to organize its cyber defenses. Similar struggles and misgivings have been seen in the big European countries, for the same reasons: the difficulty in precisely defining where cyber ends and where the traditional areas of defense on air, sea and land begin; the built-in friction between the government security organizations and civilian infrastructure bodies, which have to bow to the authority of the security experts; and the great fear of the authorities invading citizens’ privacy.

Last year, Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit was harshly critical of the plan to transfer authorities to the Cyber Bureau, which is subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office, warning that such authority could one day be exploited for political ends. As far as is known, these are not the arguments currently being made by the security chiefs. The participation of Adam in the move indicates that it is also has the approval of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. While the debate is essentially a professional one, there is still an element of defiance by Lieberman of a project that’s perceived as Netanyahu’s baby.

Incidentally, this project, too, also got away from Netanyahu a bit during the 2014 Gaza war. Participants in one of Netanyahu’s nighttime meetings with the security leadership over the wording of the original bill recall how it got preempted due to an urgent visit by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of the war.

In what can only be described as very fortuitous coincidence, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Wednesday that the Cyber Authority had just uncovered and halted a very serious assault on Israel by computer hackers. Journalists were told that the attack was directed by a foreign government. Iran was not mentioned explicitly.

Israel has outpaced many Western countries both in development of cyber defense technologies and in initially delineating the division of labor between the various security organizations. But the present dispute could harm the country’s ability to tackle such threats at a time when the gravity of the cyber threat from Iran, Hezbollah and others is being made very clear.