An assessment released on Tuesday by the army regarding the Palestinians brings into sharp relief the gaps between Israel’s official position as reflected by statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, and the analysis of experts. While the prime minister emphasizes the issue of incitement, and continues to make accusations against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israel Defense Forces focuses on other aspects of reality in the West Bank.
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The IDF rarely refers to incitement; rather, it focuses on the great potential for violent escalation in the territories if steps are not taken to ease tensions. How will this happen? The army must refrain from discussing anything connected to a diplomatic horizon for the Palestinians, but it does openly recommend preserving economic ties with the PA, and particularly recommends continued security coordination with PA security forces. These are two restraining factors that the IDF defines as critical to prevent further decline in the situation.
These recommendations, including the clear advocating of continued employment for some 120,000 Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements, were made less than a day after the attack in which Shlomit Krigman was murdered in Beit Horon. In response to the attack, the prime minister had instructed the army to implement an earlier directive of his to close off Beit Ur a-Tahta, the Palestinian village closest to the settlement, and prevent Palestinian workers from leaving the village for work on Tuesday morning. Nonetheless, the IDF reiterates its warning that large-scale prevention of Palestinians from working – among the terrorists over the past four months, only two had permits to work in Israel – will push others into the circle of terror.
The latest form of attacks, three of which were carried out in the middle of settlements and resulted in the murder of two women and the wounding of two others within about a week, undermines the sense of security even more. Netanyahu has taken high-profile declarative steps, such as the closing off of a village. But this is a limited response; the prime minister has refrained from instructing the army to carry out harsher steps. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon shares the army’s position on refraining from collective punishment.
While Netanyahu and some of his ministers stress incitement in the Palestinian media, the army presents a more complex picture. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned last week that not even one of the more than 100 knife attacks had been preceded by a specific intelligence warning. The profile of the terrorist, as formulated by security officials, shows that few of them are members of terror groups, and they have relatively weak ideological motivation (beyond a basic hatred for Israel and the occupation). Instead, they are energized in part by Internet forums, and their main motive in recent weeks is revenge for the death of friends and relatives killed while carrying out or attempting to carry out attacks.
In other areas as well the army has not been strict about coloring within the lines dictated by public diplomacy officials. The chief of staff has already said that the nuclear agreement with Iran has “threats as well as opportunities.” Now the General Staff is saying that it would have been better if the agreement had also dealt with Iran’s regional subversive activities and its plots against Israel, but that its achievements in the realm of dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure cannot be ignored.
Israel’s usual predictions of the economic power Tehran will attain now that sanctions have been abolished may have been too forceful. The decline in oil prices worldwide will somewhat neutralize the impact of the lifting of Iran’s isolation. Iran has already cut back considerably on its financial assistance to Hezbollah, which is suffering from economic difficulties and having trouble financing some of its ongoing activities, as well as sustaining heavy losses in the civil war in Syria.
But by the same token, there is also bad news (and in fact, predictions). The risk that Hezbollah will go to war against Israel remains low, for the two usual reasons: the organization’s deep involvement in the fighting in Syria, which takes a great deal of its attention and resources, and the fear of the damage it will incur in another round of fighting with the IDF. In contrast, in a very exceptional move, the IDF has updated its assessment to “moderately likely” of the possibility that a series of miscalculations could lead to the outbreak of conflict between the IDF and Hezbollah, even if this would serve the interests of neither side.
At a time when the headlines focus on the demands of Israel’s culture minister for declarations of loyalty and the controversy over censorship by the education minister, it is encouraging to see the army continue to present professional positions, without toeing the line of politicians’ expectations. The need to preserve the independence of the expert opinions of security officials is a lesson Israel had seared into it in past experiences. The question is whether this independence can be maintained for long even under the current circumstances.