The data presented here Sunday regarding the sharp drop in violence in the territories over the past two months were also presented to the weekly cabinet meeting by a representative of the Shin Bet security service. Based on this data, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel’s success in the struggle against terror, attributing the drop in violent incidents to “a tough, responsible and methodical policy led by the government.”
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Several hours later, at a state memorial ceremony for presidents and prime ministers who have passed away, Netanyahu continued riding the wave. He did warn that a continued decrease in violence was not assured and that the trend could be reversed. Yet, at the same time, he compared himself to one of his predecessors, Ariel Sharon, who, as the prime minister put it, “successfully crushed the terror infrastructures” during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. The principles determined by Sharon, in whose government Netanyahu had served as finance minister, were being implemented now as well, he added.
Netanyahu was justifiably cautious about declaring that the third intifada, which he had never defined as such, was about to end. He is probably also deserving of the credit he so generously bestowed on himself for the tough approach toward the Palestinian terror.
What he did not do, for whatever his political reasons, was mention the other factors that have contributed to the reduction in violence. Indeed, the current situation is not just the result of the augmented presence of the Israel Defense Forces and the police, and the rapid response of security personnel to attacks in progress – but also of other aspects of policy that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot have insisted upon.
Ya’alon, who in the last few days has been the target of a campaign by right-wing activists that Netanyahu has barely addressed, was the one who demanded that in this round of violence, a clear distinction must be made between terrorists and the general Palestinian population, and that if at all possible collective punishment – like keeping Palestinians from working in Israel – should be avoided. To his credit, Netanyahu went along with this.
But although Ya’alon and the military attribute a great deal of the improvement to the vigorous activity of the Palestinian security forces, under the direct orders of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – the prime minister has not mentioned it. That same PA, which Netanyahu repeatedly accused of incitement in the initial period of this round of violence, is now responsible for a systematic campaign of arresting terror suspects and for conducting an information and deterrence campaign in West Bank schools.
Over the weekend, in what looked like an operation coordinated with Israel, three Palestinians who had disappeared from their homes a few days before and were feared to be planning a terror attack were arrested by PA security forces in Ramallah in possession of weapons.
This demonstrates the necessity of continuing the security coordination with the PA. The recent discussions with the Palestinians, at the recommendation of the IDF, with respect to strengthening the PA’s security role in parts of Area A (the part of the West Bank that is under the authority's full control), reflect a similar train of thought. That same PA, whose collapse some cabinet ministers have recently predicted, is proving that its security activity is vital to help calm things down.
To be sure, the intervention of the PA forces, which came hesitantly and belatedly, stemmed from domestic Palestinian considerations. Apparently, Abbas and his men were becoming concerned about the consequences of the violence for the stability of their regime, and about the growing number of young Palestinians attackers being killed while achieving nothing in terms of change on the ground.
Still, this coordination cannot be counted on forever. There are two open questions. One relates to the desire and the ability of the PA to continue acting as Israel’s security subcontractor when there are no diplomatic talks and the Palestinian economy is stumbling. The other involves the expected battle for succession should Abbas’ age and health force him at some point to step down from his post.
The coordinator of government activity in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, has already assessed that the latter struggle will lead all contenders to express tougher stances vis-a-vis Israel, which could affect the quality of the security coordination.
Netanyahu’s comparison of himself to Sharon in 2002 is somewhat exaggerated. Sharon was forced to deal with a campaign of murderous terror that reached its peak in March of that year, when 130 Israelis were killed. He also used far more aggressive tactics, including closures, curfews, the surrounding of villages, attacks by whole divisions accompanied by tanks, numerous assassinations of central terror operatives and mass arrests – all against a far greater threat.
The threat that Netanyahu has faced is more limited and the measures taken have been accordingly more restrained.
Still, if the present wave of violence is indeed fading, the prime minister does get some of the credit. At least he didn’t interfere with the IDF and the Shin Bet, nor was he swept into making unilateral moves that might have caused damage that would have been difficult to repair.