Recent Moves by Israel Could Harm Relations With Arab World, Security Officials Warn

Defense establishment assess that increasing emphasis on Israel's religious character, over democratic values and Palestinian economic hardship could lead to civil uprisings led by Hamas against the Authority

A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli forces during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan in the West Bank, June 25, 2019.
Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Defense establishment sources say that moves promoted recently by Israel, such as upsetting the balance between the Jewish and democratic characteristics of the country, may disrupt the Palestinian Authority’s control of the West Bank and harm Israel’s relations with Arab states.

They say that new laws, such as ones allowing retroactive approval of land expropriation and the withholding of $140 million owed to the Palestinian Authority, may lead to civil protests that could result in violent clashes led by Hamas and others opposing the Authority. They added that if Israel continues to hold on to Palestinian funds, the Authority may soon start losing its grip on areas it controls.

>> Read more: While Jews and Arabs mingled in Bahrain, Israelis and Palestinians met a thousand miles away | Analysis 

In a forum of senior political and defense officials, the possibility was raised that Israel’s standing among moderate Arab countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia would be damaged by an increased emphasis on more religious elements of Israel’s character, rather than its democratic character. Experts were of the opinion that Israel’s democratic nature was being eroded in favor of its Jewish one at a time when Israel is viewed as a key player in the Middle East in addressing the Iranian threat. Trump’s policies toward Iran and Europe’s involvement with its own internal affairs have strengthened Israel’s position, according to a senior defense official. Israel is exploiting this situation for forging strategic alliances with Arab states, although this does not necessarily imply a normalization of relations with these states.

The official added that Israel’s improved standing derived in part from its being perceived as a democratic state, secular and economically stable, a country with an independent judiciary that abides by international law. This perception, along with concerns these countries have about Iran, have sidelined Palestinian nationhood in their list of priorities. However, assessments presented to political echelons suggest that extreme actions and legislation that harms the Palestinian economy will force these countries to condition any cooperation on addressing national Palestinian aspirations.

This assessment is shared by others outside the defense establishment. In a 2018 strategic assessment by the Institute for National Security Studies, attorney Pnina Sharvit-Baruch and Dr. Tzipi Israeli, senior INSS research fellows, argued that “relinquishing liberal values has practical implications for national defense” and that “this could have negative implications for Israel’s foreign relations, for its strategic alliance with the U.S. and for its cooperation with other Western states.”

There is consensus within the defense establishment that for now, economic hardships is the main issue that concerns Palestinians, and that the Arab world is indifferent to Palestinian national aspirations. If expectations are not met that the crisis be resolved, partly at the Bahrain economic conference, frustration with the Authority and Israel could create tension. Addressing national issues will only take center stage after an improvement in the security and economic situation in Gaza and the West Bank. For years, discussions between Jerusalem and Ramallah gave the Authority international legitimacy, with Israel benefiting from security coordination. Severing these links took the Palestinian issue off the agenda of Arab countries, but Israel must still contend with it.

Along with new laws and discussions of annexing parts of the West Bank, issues which made headlines in the recent election, the right is trying to transfer the authority of the Civil Administration [which runs Israeli-held territory in the West Bank] to government ministries. Knowledgeable sources say that in discussions over forming a coalition government, the Union of Right-Wing Parties demanded that relevant ministries handle West Bank infrastructure. Intelligence reports say that this will be perceived as annexation, since infrastructure is shared by Palestinians and settlers. Such a move could evoke violent protests by Palestinians, who are worried about Israel’s attempts to weaken the Civil Administration, says one defense official. Right now, there are no contacts between Israel and the Authority, other than security coordination.

If the Authority starts to collapse following moves by Israel, such as withholding funds in lieu of payments to families of security prisoners or of killed terrorists, President Abbas will find himself in a war of succession. This may lead to acts of terror against Israel. It is most probable that Abbas will transfer power to one of his associates. Israel believes he’s lost interest in diplomatic moves by the U.S. as long as Trump is president, but that he’s not bent on terror, even if his international standing plummets. He may allow limited clashes that remain under his control.

Abbas’ main problem, according to an assessment presented to political echelons, is his difficulties in handling the economic crisis. A further deterioration, along with a sense of national humiliation among Palestinians following Trump’s deal of the century (which will probably not address their position regarding Jerusalem and the holy sites, or the prisoner and refugee problems), may lead to protests which bring forth a younger alternative to the Authority, even at the cost of a violent internal struggle. Israel’s defense establishment does not know of figures that could set up an alternative leadership, but an extreme economic crisis could lead the public to impose a new leader on the Authority.

Polls show that more than 70 percent of West Bank residents do not trust Abbas and wish he be replaced. This is worrisome given his ability to control security forces who, according to IDF sources, are starting to express frustration with Abbas. For three months they’ve only been paid half their salary, with junior members required to work extra hours.

Defense establishment sources warned politicians that if junior Palestinian policemen see Hamas members getting full salaries, this will lead to frustration and thoughts that only violence leads to understandings with Israel. A senior military figure said recently that security coordination is vital for both sides. The Authority needs it for preventing Hamas from taking over the West Bank, while Israel needs it for preventing terror. Any disruption of this balance can harm both sides in unpredictable ways.