Who’s Afraid of a Third Intifada?

Not least during election season, Israel’s left, center and right all have strong reasons to exploit the debate about whether a third intifada between Israel and the Palestinians is already here – but for very different ends.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn
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A Palestinian woman argues with an Israeli border police officer near the Lions Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Sara Yael Hirschhorn

“Who’s Afraid of a third intifada?” could have been a likely title for Israel/Palestine’s latest dystopian political theater opening. It’s the story of an unhappy couple unwilling — or unable — over the past several months to confront the reality of a third uprising.

It would seem to require the suspension of disbelief, even a certain kind of dedicated, deliberate denial on the part of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, to disavow seeing that the series of brutal events engulfing Jerusalem and spreading to the West Bank adds up to more than the sum of their parts - a third intifada. Yet examining the labels used to describe these attacks reveals how the latest cycle of violence has been politicized by each part of the political spectrum to bolster their own narratives and agendas. Of most concern within Israel is that the “Is it/isn’t it an intifada” internal monologue becomes an endless state of warfare with the Palestinians, a self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent or extant violence that makes peace impossible.

As if breaking the fourth wall to address both domestic and international audiences directly, Haaretz’s own Barak Ravid took to Twitter last week: “The third intifada is already here – if there’s anyone that still doesn’t get it.” Whether it be a silent intifada, a car intifada, a Jerusalem intifada, a firecracker intifada or any of the other monikers bandied about by pundits over the last few weeks, it’s clear to liberal Zionists and the Israeli left that an uprising is here to stay. The fact that this intifada doesn’t follow the script of past uprisings — which were distinguished by coordination from above, a single tactic of warfare (stone-throwing, suicide bombing), widespread geographic reach, or identifiable duration — is irrelevant. What matters is that there is an unstoppable movement on the ground.

In fact, more than any other constituency, the left and liberal Zionists within Israel and abroad quietly ‘need’ an uprising because they believe it will be the only method to mobilize its base and push the rest of Israel toward the final act of a permanent status agreement. Moreover, this uprising must not just be a non-sequential flare up of violence, but a full-fledged intifada, a series of events of such dimensions that can prove to Israeli public that the territories — the root of all troubles in their eyes — must be handed back.

Correspondingly, an intifada — which in the past had been a key symbol of the Palestinian national movement —might also indicate by proxy that secular Palestinian nationalism is alive and well and that Mahmoud Abbas is a leader worth reckoning with, in the wishful thinking that ultimately both sides can be brought back to the table for a two-state solution. This is despite the popular Palestinian turn toward Hamas and Abbas’s lack of legitimacy on the Palestinian street. While the liberal-left run the danger of scaring the Israeli body politic into the paralysis of a security stupor, a period of time where security considerations will trump all others, there is a strong belief that nothing short of catastrophe will shock the public into action. For them, the intifada could be the plot twist that gets the audience on its feet, far more than the less personal, less immediate and more distanced threat of eroding American and European support for Israel.

Israel’s center and security hawks are trying to keep pace with the unfolding script. While they acknowledge increasing violence, a third intifada still remains a threat in the distance — somewhere off-stage. Fearful of making any brash moves that might upset the balance of power, centrists - in government, the defense and security establishment, and intellectuals - are highly motivated to preserve the status quo and survive another season. At the same time, they also need to empower moderate secular Palestinians over Islamist forces, so the possibility of an intifada in the future signals that Mahmoud Abbas and his power should be taken seriously (even if these Israeli centrists subvert their own intentions each time they undercut his authority). Most of all, without an understudy for the two-state solution, this group just hopes that the levels of violence will remain within ‘acceptable’ ranges for both the Israeli and Palestinian public, while keep the international community onside. All they need to do is survive until the coming electoral intermission and to take up these issues again, even if yet again only rhetorically, after the elections.

For the Israeli right and settler movement, their role in this political theater with deadly consequences is a difficult part to play. On the one hand, they are deeply invested in the idea of a ‘sustainable’ status quo, which is conditional on the absence of an intifada. This is in order that both the liberal-left and the center are disempowered from asking any tough questions about the consequences of the continuing occupation to Israelis’ personal security, its geopolitical or moral wrongness or rightness. They also don’t want to frighten their own supporters, many of whom live in Jerusalem or the territories, on the front lines of a flare-up in violence; the dangers to this population should not be trivialized. For their agenda though, a third intifada could also destroy any illusions that peace is possible with the Palestinians, advancing the one-state Israeli sovereignty agenda that is increasingly mainstream amongst their political representatives.

However, rather than call it an intifada, the right prefers the terminology of a religious war, casting Jews as the hero of a cosmic drama of good versus evil. By making Hamas (and sometimes by extension, all Muslims) their opponents, the uprising is framed as supra-national and civilizational - not simply a matter of arbitrating the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, or dividing the land, but a holy war against those that would threaten a Jewish homeland and the heavenly promise for dominion over the land. Calling the latest attack in Har Nof “a pogrom,” only deepens the narrative that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a clear playing out of anti-Semitism (even if they are correct to identify that this aspect does play a supporting role), a scourge impossible to banish by anything other than Jewish Israeli sovereignty between the river and the sea. For some, the violence may even have messianic overtones, a critical turning point in the path toward redemption – a mirror image of the apocalyptic role the uprising would have amongst leftists and liberal Zionists.

So who’s afraid of a third intifada? We should all be concerned about how this term is being manipulated to suit various political agendas. It’s time for us all to play our parts in this political theater in Israel/Palestine and speak out against the politicization and instrumentalization of violence whether as a pretext to rush parties to the table, as a measure to stall, or to torpedo a two-state solution.

A third intifada will certainly make the path toward peace slower and more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians, if not acting as the two-state solution’s epitaph. But that doesn’t absolve both populations from standing strong against inter-communal violence, and politicians, scholars, and policy-makers from exploring new options beyond the two-state paradigm that offer more than just political solutions and actually resolve the underlying ideological tensions that lead recurrently to violence.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research, teaching and public engagement activities focus on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the relationship between U.S. Jewry and Israel. She is the author of the forthcoming City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1.

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