Analysis

Israel Concerned: Abbas' Health Deteriorating as West Bank Simmers

Sources believe that further worsening of the Palestinian president's condition could hasten the changing of the guard at the Palestinian Authority

Palestinian President Abbas addressing Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, July 21, 2017.
Abbas Momani/AFP

The Israeli defense establishment is following the health of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with concern. Abbas was hospitalized in Ramallah for a few hours on Friday morning for some tests. PA officials said he was suffering from fatigue brought on by the events of the last two weeks and the tensions with Israel over the Temple Mount crisis.

>> Get all updates on Israel, Abbas and the Palestinians: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

Israeli and Palestinian sources believe that Abbas’ health has deteriorated in recent months and that any further worsening could hasten the changing of the guard at the Palestinian Authority. Abbas’ inner circle is interested in minimizing the severity of his medical problems. Managing the crisis with Israel has necessitated the president to continuously monitor events as they unfold, hold frequent meetings with his advisers and with Fatah and PA leaders, and stay in touch with Arab leaders and Western diplomats. Abbas is also worried about the strengthening relationship between Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan under the auspices of the Egyptians, which could lead to coordinated political moves directed against him.

Abbas is 82 and is considered to be healthy. Earlier this decade he was treated for prostate cancer, but was later diagnosed with cardiac problems as well. He is a heavy smoker but has recently switched to electronic cigarettes.

Over the last week the Palestinian Authority hardened its approach to Israel, calling for a "Day of Rage" in Jerusalem and the West Bank last Friday. It seems that this was done mainly as part of its rivalry with Hamas over leading the Palestinian public in its struggle over the Temple Mount.

Protesters throw stones at Israeli solders during clashes on the border with the Gaza Strip, July 28, 2017.
Adel Hana/AP

Two young Palestinians were killed by gunfire in clashes with Israel Defense Forces soldiers over the weekend. One man was shot at the Etzion Bloc intersection on Friday. The army spokesman said that the man had run toward soldiers wielding a knife. Another Palestinian was shot on the border with the Gaza Strip after a group of people approached the fence, throwing rocks and setting fire to tires. One thousand Palestinians took part in violent demonstrations across the West Bank. One soldier was slightly injured by a stone and at least nine Palestinians were hit by rubber bullets that the army fired.

However, the number of protesters was significantly lower than over the previous weekend. East Jerusalem saw some violent demonstrations as well, although prayers at the Temple Mount passed relatively peacefully. Muslim worshippers entered the compound after the Mufti of Jerusalem announced on Thursday that Israel had removed all security measures it had set up after the shooting incident that killed two Border Policemen at the site on July 14. Israel allowed entrance only to men over 50 years old.

The army hopes that the decline in the intensity of incidents over the weekend indicates a gradual winding down of tensions. There are still warnings of lone wolf attacks and the army is maintaining its reinforcements in the West Bank. Depending on developments, the five battalions that were pulled away from training and sent there last week could remain there for a few more weeks.

The diminishing tensions may be related to outside pressure on the Palestinian Authority. Saudi Arabia and the United States, two of the major donors that form the base of the PA's economy, signaled to Abbas in recent days that he must curb the violence. In contrast, Turkey contributed to inflaming the Palestinian public over the Temple Mount clashes.

The Israeli defense establishment is troubled by the Palestinian sense of victory following the cabinet’s decision to dismantle all new security measures installed at the Mount (a decision backed by all the security agencies except the police). Senior sources believe Israel had no choice in the matter in light of the crisis that followed the erection of metal detectors, and that the cabinet was required to quickly remove them in order to forestall an even greater crisis.

However, the fact that Palestinians view the incident as a clear victory over Israel could prompt further moves. This could happen on the diplomatic front, with renewed efforts to join international agencies, but could also lead to further terror attacks. Throughout the crisis, intelligence agencies noted the strengthened religious element in discussions of the Temple Mount among the Palestinian public, with an increased influence of institutions with religious affiliation, mainly Hamas.

In consultations held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in cabinet meetings, security agencies (except the police) voiced pessimistic assessments unless their recommendations to remove the security measures were adopted. Some cabinet members accused defense officials of presenting “apocalyptic scenarios” intended to drive the cabinet to adopt their proposals and stop insisting on leaving the detectors in place. Most of the fire was directed at the Shin Bet, but the National Security Council also presented dire forecasts on relations with the Arab world if the situation was not resolved quickly.

Those who participated in discussions over the last two weeks mentioned the harsh line adopted by Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who objected to removing the metal detectors and to “caving in” to the Palestinian Authority. Some said he seemed driven by a deep ideological conviction, “almost messianic.” The rivalry between Alsheich, a former senior Shin Bet official, and Nadav Argaman, the current Shin Bet director, was plainly obvious. Alsheich conducted a tour outside the Temple Mount on Friday. “We can’t be defeatists,” he told journalists. “People must understand that there is a sovereign here who maintains order and allows prayers to take place.”

The current crisis highlighted yet again the tensions between right-wing politicians and the heads of security agencies. Cabinet members expressed severe off-the-record criticism of the army and Shin Bet for their handling of the latest terror wave and mainly for their attempts to intimidate the cabinet. Culture Minister Miri Regev, coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) and other lawmakers directly attacked the Shin Bet for its conduct. Bitan hinted at holding the army directly responsibility for failures which enabled the attack that left three members of the Salomon family dead in the settlement of Halamish. Senior army and Shin Bet officials know that this adversarial tone could worsen, especially if attacks continue and the army recommends not employing collective punishment against the Palestinians.