Israel could face escalation in violence and instability in the West Bank in 2017 due to the diminishing status of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi warned on Sunday.
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Halevi addressed a wide range of regional topics in a closed talk at Tel Aviv University's Business-Academic Club. He predicted that elections in Iran set for May 2017 would continue the process of gradual moderation of that country’s domestic policies, and said that the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president would put to the test the anti-establishment ideology that brought him to power.
Participants said that a key focus of Halevi’s remarks dealt with the implications of power struggles in the Palestinian Authority over the question of the “day after” the end of Abbas’ term in office.
"2017 won't be a stable year for the Palestinian Authority," he said. "There will be many factors that undermine Abu Mazen’s [Abbas’] leadership and Hamas wants to make gains. The result will be a very challenging reality in Judea and Samaria."
He added that the decline in the number of terror attacks over the past few months is due to a combination of the high cost of such attacks to the Palestinians themselves and Israel’s fighting the attacks while avoiding collective punishment of the civilian population.
"We will find a way to deal with the fires, but ultimately new inventions will turn up," he said, referring to recent cases of arson. "It will come in waves, and we need to be prepared."
Halevi sounded optimistic over possible progress in the coming year in Israel’s ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “We have common interests with the Sunni countries,” he said. “What we do with it is another question but this is Israel’s great opportunity for the coming years.”
As for Iran, Halevi predicted that if President Hassan Rohani will win the election in May, and continue on the path he has been trying to lead Iran in recent years. “Rohani is paying closer attention to what his people want. In five or six years we may see a different Iran,” he said.
"The Iranians are strong in the engineering department and win math competitions, but they don't stay in Iran," he noted. "Perhaps the government that comes to power after the election will entice them to stay."
The MI chief also addressed the recent U.S. election and upcoming elections in Europe. “The world is in its adolescence and there are many 'anti' votes,” he said as he showed a slide of Trump and Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU. "Trump won because he was anti-establishment. The question now is whether his 'anti' ideology will stand up to the test, and how will he act against the establishment from within the White House."
He also predicted that if more ultranationalists ascend to power in the West, “the institution of the state will grow stronger and walls between nations will grow higher.”
Halevi struck a pessimistic note about the situation in Turkey and the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “In another five or 10 years the legacy of Ataturk will no longer be prominent. We [see] a process of religious radicalization in Turkey,” he said.
He recommended that Israel play “hard to get” in its ties with Turkey and move ahead slowly.
According to Halevi, the civil war in Syria will not end any time soon, and even if an agreement is reached in Europe to end hostilities, “its chances of succeeding are low.” He said resolution could come from cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, noting that Moscow wants to reach an understanding with the U.S. and Europe with regard to the war in Syria in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Although ISIS was weakening, Halevi warned that this could mean that Hezbollah and Iran would have the upper hand in Syria, which would not be good for Israel. Halevi said that Hezbollah is in distress as many of its members are killed in Syria and due to financial difficulties. Despite Hezbollah’s setbacks in Syria, Halevi said it is still trying to build its forces against Israel.