Analysis |

Netanyahu Defused Three Bombs Before the Election. Now Comes the Hardest One

The Palestinian Authority is hanging on the brink, and the West Bank could explode into violence

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian protesters in Hebron burn a poster that features an image of Trump next to the slogan "No for the deal of the century."
Palestinian protesters in Hebron, February 2019.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Benjamin Netanyahu defused three explosive devices from his path in the weeks leading up to his election victory. The prime minister knew that a security flare-up on the eve of the vote could hurt his electoral prospects, and thus exercised maximum flexibility when it came to the land mines that could imperil Likud’s success: the situation on the border with Gaza, the hunger strike by Hamas inmates in Israeli prisons and the tension at the Temple Mount.

On one occasion, Netanyahu told his aides that only a military clash in Gaza could threaten his party’s victory. Accordingly, he conveyed, through Egyptian mediators, far-reaching promises regarding post-election improvements at the border crossings and for the injection of funds from the Arab world to upgrade infrastructure in the Strip. The situation on the border remains sensitive at present, but these last weeks have been the quietest in more than a year for the Israeli communities in the area.

For the same reasons, along with concern that tension in the prisons would resonate in Gaza, Netanyahu moved quickly to curtail the hunger strike. That goal was achieved by means of a commitment made to the inmates to install public telephones in prison security wings. Concurrently, Israel arrived at understandings with Jordan and the Waqf, the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount, to shut down the contentious structure called Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy) for a few months of renovations, in order to calm tensions in that arena.

>> Read more: Palestinian Authority under threat in face of major fiscal crisis, UN report warnsWhite House, Abbas fight to win over Arab world about upcoming U.S. peace plan

Now comes the trickiest hazard of all, if only because it’s one planted by Netanyahu himself. In mid-February the security cabinet approved legislation meant to prevent the monthly transfer of funds from the Palestinian Authority to the security prisoners incarcerated in Israel. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would refuse to accept the tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the PA, to the tune of some 9 billion shekels (about $2.5 billion) a year – approximately half the PA’s budget. The immediate result is an unusually severe economic crisis in the territories. The salaries of more than 160,000 public employees in the West Bank have been cut by about 50 percent for the second successive month – and just before the onset of the month of Ramadan, when Palestinian household expenses are at their highest. Afterward, the PA will likely have to resort to even more extreme austerity measures.

The confrontation over the prisoner payments comes on top of additional economic difficulties for the PA, owing to the slash in the budget of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency, and the almost total cessation of American aid – which together mean a shortfall of approximately a billion shekels in the annual funding usually received by the authority. In contrast to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank is not accustomed to such dramatic crises. During the 14 years since the second intifada died out, the economic situation there had been quite reasonable in regional terms.

Underlying the freeze on the transfer of funds to the security prisoners is a combination of political considerations and ideological justifications. Israel’s right wing has been demanding for some years that what its activists perceive as a reward for terrorism be stopped. Two months before the election, in light of the challenge posed by parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Hayamin Hehadash, and despite intelligence assessments that Abbas would not be able to backtrack from what is perceived as a sacrosanct national principle among the Palestinians, Netanyahu capitulated to the pressure. Is he capable of changing course now, knowing that aggravation of the economic crisis could hamper security coordination with the PA and spur a possible confrontation in the West Bank? Some defense establishment officials discern a narrow window of opportunity for the premier. The new government hasn’t yet been formed, and Netanyahu is enjoying a strong public tailwind following his election victory. He can do almost anything he pleases.

Last week, the new Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayeh, presented a 100-day emergency economic plan for coping with the crisis. As part of the plan, the PA will no longer finance medical treatment in Israel for residents of the territories. Instead, those patients will be referred to Egypt and Jordan, where treatment is cheaper but also of lower quality. Shtayeh also called for the Palestinians to stop using Israeli currency and urged them to return to growing their on food on the land. Some of the ideas he put forward sound a bit odd, but they are based on a more coherent ideology: a return to sumud, steadfast persistence – an approach the Palestinians have adopted before during rough periods when the world seemed to have abandoned them, such as in the 1980s, ahead of the eruption of the first intifada in December 1987.

Shtayeh’s remarks reflect a deep despair on the Palestinian side, which is only growing more intense in light of the reports about the U.S. administration’s plan for the “deal of the century,” whose unveiling has been postponed until June, after the end of Ramadan. President Donald Trump and his staff aren’t even pretending to be honest brokers between Israel and the PA, so the latter have good reason for concern. According to leaks about the plan, the United States will propose less than a state for the Palestinians.

In his farewell interviews, France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud (formerly an outstanding ambassador for his country in Israel who was friendly with many senior figures here), warned that Israel is sliding into an apartheid regime in the territories. The prime minister’s adviser Jonathan Urich asserted proudly to the newspaper Makor Rishon that Netanyahu “succeeded in achieving a severance between Gaza and Judea-Samaria and effectively smashed the vision of the Palestinian state in those two regions.” Meanwhile, in the current coalition talks, the Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding the application of Israeli sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank, as well as passage of the immunity law, which could ensure that Netanyahu remains in power for many years to come.

Trump’s unreserved support for Netanyahu is generating an atmosphere of exaggerated confidence, to the point of complacency, in the right wing, which is only strengthened by the indifference of the international community to the Palestinians’ plight. But even if we set aside for a moment the moral implications of continuing the occupation for years – it’s a mistaken approach on the practical level. Sooner or later, the territories are liable to be consumed by flames again.

Over three years ago, the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence branch issued a strategic warning to the civilian leadership about a possible widespread uprising in the territories. The threat did not materialize, apart from a wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks in the autumn of 2015, which was suppressed within a few months. The insistence by Military Intelligence on reiterating the warnings at the time sparked unease, sometimes even ridicule, among the cabinet ministers. Nonetheless, a continuation of the current trends and tensions is liable to bring about realization of the pessimistic scenario.

Until about a year ago, Col. (res.) Michael Milstein served in the IDF, among other posts, as head of the Palestinian sector in MI’s research division. “The secret of the relative quiet in the West Bank for more than a decade,” Milstein told Haaretz on Tuesday, “is the comparatively stable fabric of life. The Palestinian public’s traumatic memory from the period of the intifada and its understanding of the costs entailed have so far put a cap on another broad explosion. The fact that quiet continues to prevail attests to the shock and to the gradual digesting of the significance of the economic measures the PA contended with. But the explosion could come very quickly.”

Milstein is worried by the possibility that thousands more Palestinians in the West Bank will join violent disturbances or take part in acts of terror, thus dealing a further blow to the functioning of the PA, something that would weaken its control on the ground. Senior Palestinian figures, he added, are constantly warning about a downgrading of the security coordination with Israel – a development that activists could take as a green light to resort to violence.

“The government of Israel needs to show pragmatism, as it’s doing in the Gaza Strip. If that doesn’t happen,” warns Milstein, “we are liable to find ourselves in a situation of rapid security deterioration.”

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