Analysis

The Arab Spring’s Lesson for Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’

Then and now, the intelligence community can’t predict what shape a popular struggle would take. But the Israeli army fears a critical mass of Palestinian resentment

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians demonstrating against the U.S. Mideast peace plan, Gaza City, January 28, 2020.
Palestinians demonstrating against the U.S. Mideast peace plan, Gaza City, January 28, 2020.Credit: Khalil Hamra / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Will U.S. President Donald Trump's peace plan and the prospect of annexations by Israel begin to snowball in the West Bank? Usually, the prophecies of violence don’t come to fruition immediately. The West Bank Palestinians are concerned with everyday problems, and they know that their economic situation is better than that of their brethren in Gaza or their neighbors in certain Arab countries.

And maybe they’re tired of the violent struggle, a great sacrifice that has only chalked up a few achievements in the past two decades. Moreover, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t keen on a third intifada, which could endanger his rule.

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Last month, the Israeli Military Intelligence assessment that was presented to the government included a warning about the difficulty of predicting protests in the territories and neighboring countries. This is one lesson of the Arab Spring, during which many developments caught the West’s intelligence organizations by surprise.

Still, defense officials realize the possibility of a descent into local incidents in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the coming weeks, especially if “the deal of the century” goes into annexation mode. After situation assessments headed by military chief Aviv Kochavi in recent days, forces were slightly beefed up in the West Bank. Two elite infantry battalions were sent in, and one from the Home Front Command was sent to help the Jordan Valley Brigade, where it will take up positions around Palestinian villages east of Nablus.

The assessments focus on scenarios of violent demonstrations and a new wave of “lone wolf” attacks. In the longer term, the army is also taking into account a possible attack in coordination with the Palestinian security apparatus. This is a move that the Palestinian Authority threatened in the past. All told, it’s possible that a critical mass of insults and losses is gradually coalescing into a change in the Palestinian approach to the close security coordination – one of the few achievements that remain from the Oslo Accords.

In one respect, the American peace team has done good work – harnessing Gulf states to support the plan, albeit with a low profile. The weak and worrisome link is Jordan, which is especially alarmed by the possibility that Israel will annex the Jordan Valley unilaterally. This is the reason Israeli defense officials are warning the government to act quickly to reassure the Jordanians and keep the peace agreement between the two countries sound.

The details of the plan were made known to the army only a few days before its publication. Unlike some of the previous rounds of diplomatic talks, the officers were left outside the room this time, almost completely. Accordingly, the staff work will begin belatedly. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced the establishment of a special team to prepare for the implementing of Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and the West Bank. But, based on the position pushed through by Jared Kushner within the U.S. administration, such preparations look less urgent.

What does the military think about the intention to annex? Former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said this week that “annexation is dangerous. It may block the path to any future political agreement and to any attempt to separate from the millions of Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria. At the end of the day it may bring about the nightmare of a single state. Such a state will not be able to be both Jewish and democratic. It will cause the collapse of the Zionist dream.”

Harsh words. His former subordinates and colleagues still in the army aren’t allowed to comment on them. But we can assume that on the question of annexation, many of them agree with him.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House for the announcement of the U.S. president's Mideast peace plan, January 28, 2020.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House for the announcement of the U.S. president's Mideast peace plan, January 28, 2020. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

Naama and Bibi

Last April, on the eve of the first of Israel’s three elections within a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to prove his status as a super-statesman via two grand gestures: Trump’s statement about recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and, following Netanyahu’s lightning visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the return of the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the 1982 Lebanon war.

Just like a reality show, which requires ever stronger stimuli to maintain its ratings, before the third election Netanyahu had more ambitious aims – publication of the “deal of the century” in Washington and then a direct flight to Moscow to bring imprisoned backpacker Naama Issachar back home after his second meeting with Putin in a week.

As we could have guessed, the success of the young woman’s release was accompanied by some obvious poor taste. Israel succumbed to extortion by Russia, which exaggerated a minor drug offense to exploit Issachar for diplomatic gains. This was probably the necessary decision, but the prime minister doesn’t feel he owes the public an accounting regarding what he gave the Russians.

He brought her back in his plane and is marketing the achievement as if she were a freed soldier, with the clear association being Gilad Shalit, who Hamas released in a 2011 prisoner swap after the sergeant spent more than five years in Gaza.

Still, the first opinion polls published Wednesday didn’t show any significant electoral benefit after the stunning performances in Washington and Moscow. Maybe it’s too soon – and maybe it’s no wonder. As is clear to us all, the many election campaigns are based on a single question: Netanyahu yes or no. And because the vast majority of voters have already formed an opinion, most new developments simply justify one’s original positions.

Unfortunately, the Israeli electorate is split more or less straight down the middle on this question. So at the moment, a fourth election doesn’t look impossible.

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