Beneath the surface there’s a ticking bomb that could upend the entire election campaign, even though it has nothing to do with the investigations of the prime minister or the union of the centrist parties.
A series of negative developments on issues relating to the Palestinians – Jerusalem, prisoners, Palestinian Authority funds and the condition of Gaza’s infrastructure – once again are threatening an escalation between Israel and the Palestinians, possibly during the six weeks left until the Knesset election. The Palestinians themselves, and even Jordan, are responsible for some of these developments, but it seems the Israeli leadership is marching into a potential crisis with its eyes wide open.
Last week, the security cabinet, under clear political constraints, decided to implement a law passed by the Knesset last year and deduct NIS 500 million ($140 million) from tax revenues it collects for the PA, as punishment for the financial aid the PA provides to security prisoners. Israel tried something similar in January 2015, but quickly reversed it under Palestinian pressure. Now, with the election campaign in progress and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused of being soft on terror, he had little political room to maneuver. The decision to deduct PA funds was made despite the wall-to-wall opposition by the heads of the security forces.
The planned cut is already making the West Bank nervous. Security officials who talk to Palestinians report that residents are afraid that the PA won’t able to pay salaries and that they won’t be able to pay their debts and mortgages. The chain reaction will also harm the Gaza Strip. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has already announced that some of the money Israel withholds will be deducted from the funds the PA pays to the Strip, which will have an immediate impact on the economic situation there. As it is, Hamas is playing with fire by allowing violent standoffs with the Israel Defense Forces along the Gaza border nearly every night.
Meanwhile, members of the PA’s security apparatus compete to express solidarity with the prisoners, announcing they will donate money from their salaries for their jailed brethren. Within the prisons, the situation is far from calm. In recent days, on the order of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and acting Israel Prison Service Commissioner Asher Vaknin, prison guards have been cracking down on prisoners keeping forbidden cell phones by installing reception blockers in the security wings.
A few days ago a Palestinian prisoner tried to set himself on fire to protest the worsening of prisoners’ conditions, but the guards managed to subdue him before he harmed himself. On Sunday some prisoner leaders from both Hamas and Fatah announced they were resigning in response to the moves against cell phone use.
More fuel was poured on the fire at the most sensitive location of all, the Temple Mount. Two weeks ago Jordan announced that seven Palestinians would be joining the 11 current members of the Jerusalem Waqf (Islamic trust), which answers to Jordan. The new members, who were chosen in coordination with the PA, are mostly Fatah members from Jerusalem. Last week there was a confrontation over a unilateral Palestinian decision to open a building near the Golden Gate that Israel had sealed 13 years ago.
All these events together could become components of quite a conflagration. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi earlier this month ordered the army to intensify its preparations for an operation in the Gaza Strip and on Sunday a surprise General Staff exercise was launched, also with Gaza in mind. These moves, along with improved preparedness, also serve to signal Hamas not to test Israel. The question is how Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, and especially Yahya Sinwar, are reading this muscle-flexing.
This problem is primarily Kochavi’s. The prime minister is distracted by his legal problems, most recently the ban on his receiving money from close associates to finance his legal defense. The ministers are in the midst of the election campaign and the security cabinet isn’t convening for in-depth discussions. Kochavi, like his colleague, Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman, will have to demonstrate backbone in the face of a political system that’s losing its brakes.
It’s worth making another comment, with the requisite caution. The tension in the political arena has risen these past few days. What at first looked like a boring campaign whose results were foretold has now become, at least according to the polls, a relatively close race. Soon another bomb will drop, in the form of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s recommendations on the Netanyahu corruption cases. This would be a good time for the Shin Bet to carefully examine the security arrangements for senior members of the judicial system as well as Netanyahu’s main rivals – if only due to the slight chance that someone might translate disagreements into violent acts.