Gershon Baskin is the founder of IPCRI – Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and served as its co-director until January 2012. He is a long-time veteran of both Israeli peace NGOs and second track diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, and has many key contacts on both sides. This gives him a particularly well-informed grasp of current events.
In July 2006, after Gilad Schalit’s abduction in Gaza he began unofficially, without governmental authorization or support, to open a back channel with Hamas. Baskin was involved in the ultimately successful efforts leading up to Shalit’s release for more than five years
Baskin holds a Ph.D. in International relations from the University of Greenwich.
All of this makes his insight into how to resolve issues particularly valuable. As this week of escalated violence in Israel and the West Bank came to a close, Baskin posted some of his thoughts to his Facebook page. The Foundation for Middle East Peace reprints them here with his permission.
This past Tuesday saw the latest in a horrifyingly long line of atrocities in Jerusalem. Two armed Palestinians entered a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood, killed five Israeli civilians and wounded six others before police gunned the murderers down. The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders are worth examining.
Hamas, unsurprisingly, praised the murders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, equally unsurprisingly, condemned them unequivocally. In his official statement, Abbas said that he “…condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”
But this didn’t stop Israeli leaders from continuing their campaign to demonize Abbas, the Palestinian leader who has tried harder, made more compromises and sacrificed more of his own credibility to achieve a two-state solution than any of his predecessors.
“Abbas has intentionally turned the conflict into a religious one between Jews and Muslims, and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews…is the ‘go-ahead’ for these despicable terror attacks,” said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Nov. 18, the day of the attack.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile told reporters that “Abbas, one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people, bears direct responsibility for the Jewish blood spilt… while we were busy with delusions about the [peace] process… Abbas has declared war on Israel and we must treat that accordingly.”
Not to be outdone by the rivals within his own governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This [attack] is a direct result of the incitement lead by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community irresponsibly ignores.” He also dismissed Abbas’ condemnation of the attack because Abbas had said: “While we condemn this incident, we also condemn the aggression toward Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places and torching of mosques and churches.” To Netanyahu, such a statement, though demonstrably based on factual Israeli actions and statements, is “incitement.”
Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He accused the Palestinians of “blood libel,” a term that refers to historical incidents where false charges against Jews of ritual murder were invented to incite anti-Jewish violence.
The vast majority of Netanyahu’s venom, and that of the other Israeli leaders was directed at Abbas, despite the shameful way Hamas applauded this heinous crime. There was a touch of irony to that, as on the same day of the attack, the head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency charged with internal security, had declared quite clearly that “[Abbas] is not interested in terror and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’”
All of this raises a question: Why is the Israeli right ignoring the low-hanging fruit of Hamas and going full bore at Abbas instead? After all, Hamas praised the attack, and Netanyahu and company could easily have stopped at tainting Abbas with the argument that he was in partnership with the Islamists via the unity government. Instead, the Israelis went much farther, to the point of virtually ignoring Hamas and the other Palestinian factions who voiced support for the attack.
The explanation for this behavior involves both the long-term and the short-term. In the short run, this is all part of Netanyahu’s broader public relations campaign linking Iran, Hamas, the Islamic State and now the Palestinian Authority. This campaign has several goals: to make it politically impossible for the United States to work with Iran against Islamic State (ISIS or IS), to make a deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries more difficult, to forestall any further international scrutiny of the siege of the Gaza Strip and to legitimize harsher Israeli measures in Jerusalem, among other goals.
On most counts, the strategy is failing, with the usual exception that Israeli actions in Gaza and Jerusalem are being downplayed, although not totally ignored. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is having more of an effect toward his long-term goal.
The endless refrain of “Iran is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas” is designed to use the universally despised Islamic State to further de-legitimize Iran and the Palestinians. The reasons for this are obvious: to paint both Hamas and Iran as such implacable enemies that Israel would be justified in any action taken against them. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is gradually broadening its scope of Palestinian targets. By blaming incitement from Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the recent attack in Jerusalem, and by repeatedly pointing out that the PA is now run by a unity government (however dysfunctional) that includes Hamas, Netanyahu is, in effect, subtly folding the PA into the “Hamas-ISIS-Iran” equation.
The strategy is working in Netanyahu’s target areas: Israelis at home and Israel’s supporters abroad, and Washington. After the synagogue murders in Jerusalem, John Kerry sounded just like Netanyahu when he blamed Palestinian incitement, clearly including the PA, for the attack. He was followed by a slew of Congress members from both parties, some of whom singled out Abbas by name.
This is part of the Israeli right’s “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It begins with rolling back the arrangements under the Oslo Accords. The vision is something similar to what existed before the Accords were signed in 1993. Israel would have full security control in the West Bank, and the PA would be reduced to an administrative body in the increasingly isolated Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Freedom of movement for Palestinians would be increased in the hope that their economic conditions would improve (possibly through increased Palestinian employment in Israeli businesses) and that this would be enough, with increased Israeli security, to maintain relative calm.
This is a shared vision among Netanyahu, Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, and numerous other right-wing figures in Israel, even though they each present it differently. It was sketched out in broad terms in the Israeli media recently. Another prize in the arrangement for Israel is that it would diminish the PA as the international representative of the Palestinians, thus blunting the gains the Palestinians have gotten through various international recognitions of their statehood. The PA would still exist, but it would be disconnected from the Palestinian street in the Occupied Territories. This would, indeed, resemble the pre-Oslo era.
Even if Netanyahu is ousted from the Prime Minister’s office in the near future (not likely, but possible given the current political waves in Israel), another right-wing leader would certainly be his successor. Thus, the rollback of Oslo would continue, as would the freeze in the peace process. And without a visible representative Palestinian leadership, international pressure for peace would diminish, simply because there won’t be anyone to press Israel to talk to (the United States, Europe and even the United Nations will not, in any foreseeable future, push Israel to talk with Hamas).
The Israeli right believes that this is a status quo that could be maintained indefinitely, with the occasional flare-up of violence with Gaza and sporadic, but disorganized attacks by individual Palestinians from the West Bank. And since right-wing leaders will be controlling Israel until an opposition that can sway the Israeli public toward a more moderate course coalesces, the vision will be pursued.
But we’re already seeing some of the reasons why this vision is unsustainable. Israeli radicals will continue to agitate for greater Jewish control of the Temple Mount, and any right-wing Israeli government cannot simply ignore them. That will lead to more and more individual acts of violence like the one this week in Jerusalem and the several that preceded it recently.
Perhaps the Israeli right thinks they can handle that as well, and they may be correct. But there is another aspect about the pre-Oslo existence that they may be overlooking.
The separation of the Palestinian masses from the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1980s led to the development of a more grassroots, locally based Palestinian leadership. It was that leadership, not the PLO, which created the first, and by far the more successful, Intifada. Palestinians have been yearning for a new leadership, and a new generation of leaders with popular support would be most welcome among them.
The first intifada was certainly not non-violent, but it relied much more on strikes, protests and civil disobedience than the second one did. Violence was a very minor aspect of it at first, until Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “breaking the Palestinians’ limbs” increased it. Even so, the non-violent aspects of that uprising remained front and center. It was then that the United States, and soon after, Israel, embraced the idea of peace with the PLO, in order to end the intifada and to blunt and co-opt that new Palestinian leadership.
If such a leadership arose again, it would be impossible to ignore politically, even in Washington and Tel Aviv. But Palestinians need to hope for it, because if the Obama administration is so removed from this issue that it is willing to blame Abbas for acts that he has strongly condemned, then the Oslo rollback-vision will prove successful, and there will be even less pressure on Israel to compromise. But that would also present an opportunity for the new Palestinian leadership to encourage renewed international activism aimed at economically pressuring Israel. And that could bring real change.
There is, however, a very long road between that sort of hope and where we are right now.
Take a particularly provocative and grandstanding Israeli government and shift its focus from Hamas and Gaza to Jerusalem and you have a most explosive recipe. That potion is being stirred now, and the results could shake up the status quo in a way that we have only seen a few times in Israel’s history.
Much of the recent news narrative starts with the wounding of Yehuda Glick, a US expat who emigrated to Israel as child and became one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Temple Mount Movement.” In reality, this chapter of the endless and bloody saga of the Old City of Jerusalem began with the last Israeli election. That poll brought into power the most radically right-wing of Israeli governments, representing an odd mixture of zealous Zionism, modern Orthodoxy in Judaism and a curious impulse to completely disregard centuries of Jewish law regarding the Temple Mount. We’ll get back to that later, but first it’s important to recognize the potential fallout from further escalation.
The recall of Jordan’s ambassador to Israel is no small matter, and it reflects just how important this issue is to the Hashemite kingdom. Despite having lost the West Bank to Israel in 1967 and having relinquished its claim to it in 1988, Jordan is still the guardian of the Jerusalem holy sites for the Muslim world. This status is precious to the Hashemites, and the prestige it brings is a crucial element for their continued hold on power.
The Israeli threats have escalated steadily since the election and then ticked up sharply in the spring, when the Netanyahu government began its anti-Hamas crackdown throughout the West Bank, under the false cover of searching for kidnap victims the Israelis already knew had been brutally murdered. Tensions and demonstrations in Jerusalem were escalating throughout the summer, while everyone’s attention was, quite understandably, focused on Gaza.
This was the inevitable result of an intensely nationalistic government believing it had finally done away with the façade of negotiations in which Jerusalem was a central issue. Brazen statements, provocative visits, and then crackdowns and harsher limits on Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque were all to be expected.
One question that these events raise is whether this is the intention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the result of his unwillingness to challenge his coalition partners and members of his own party on a passionately populist issue. I tend to lean toward the latter belief, as Netanyahu has usually shown himself to be the sort of leader who does nothing unless he’s pressured by politics. In either case, the Israeli actions have raised concerns from Washington to Brussels to Cairo and, most resoundingly, to Amman.
Despite the peace treaty with Israel being massively unpopular in Jordan, where the majority of the citizens are Palestinian, it has not been a cause for major internal upheaval. For Jordan, peace has not only brought financial and diplomatic support from the United States, it has also opened up a new market with Israel, which exports goods to Jordan and thereby to the rest of the Arab world, despite the ongoing regional boycott against Israel.
But now there is unrest and unease in Jordan. King Abdullah’s support of the United States’ efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has helped rile some of the more radical elements in Jordan, adding to the tensions that already existed between the government and more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is undergoing a severe economic crisis, with massive unemployment, even while it is also burdened with refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom have sharp complaints about their treatment.
These conditions make Jordan a tinderbox. And Jerusalem is just as sure a fuse for a Jordanian tinderbox as it is for an Israeli-Palestinian one. These are the factors that led King Abdullah to recall his ambassador from Israel. Only once before, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, has peace between Jordan and Israel been so threatened.
The Israelis have surely given this consideration, but they likely estimate that Jordan would not dare abrogate its treaty with Israel. Such a move would surely endanger Jordan’s support from the US, and that could be fatal if, indeed, internal conflict does break out in the Hashemite kingdom. Ultimately, Israel probably believes that unless it tries to threaten the authority of the Islamic Waqf, which is the body that administrates the Temple Mount, or otherwise officially changes the status quo of the area, Jordan will not withdraw from the treaty.
That’s a reasonable assessment, but it should not be banked on too strongly. Given the precarious situation in Jordan, its leadership’s main concern now is avoiding an outbreak of civil conflict altogether. Even though the Jordanian military is far superior to that of, say, Iraq, a popular uprising triggered by conflict over the Jerusalem holy sites could quickly spread to encompass the mass dissatisfaction with both the economic conditions and Hashemite rule in the country in general. Abdullah does not want to gamble on his ability to contain all of that anger. Though unlikely, that concern does give him a reason to potentially take the bold step of ending peace with Israel, and deal with the consequences of that step later.
For Israel, such an outcome would mean near-total isolation again. Even the Sisi government in Egypt would have a difficult time continuing to work with Israel all by itself. Egyptians remember well the isolation they experienced from the rest of the Arab world after their treaty with Israel was first struck. It took a very long time, even after they were re-admitted into the Arab League, for Egypt to regain a position of some stature in the Arab world.
The entire approach the international community has taken toward Jerusalem needs to re-evaluated, and quickly. For years, Israel has treated Jerusalem as a flashpoint it could manipulate for nationalistic reasons, and for a long time, young Palestinian Muslims (sometimes all of them under the age of 50, other times the cutoff age has been as low as 35) have been unable to go to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. To be sure, there have also been many incidents of Palestinians using Friday prayers as a launching pad for protests and stone-throwing, sometimes down the hill at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall.
Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem on March 14, 2010. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS
Now, Jerusalem is being used by different parts of Israel’s governing coalition. The further right elements are crystallizing nationalist fervor around it. Netanyahu, for his part, is using the violence that Israeli actions are stirring up to blame Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as part of his campaign to convince people that all of Israel’s opponents—IS, Iran, Hamas, and the PA as led by Abbas—are essentially the same enemy of not only Israel, but the entire world. And, of course, Hamas, and Fatah as well, are using the Israeli actions as a rallying cry, spurring people to both organized and individual acts of resistance and/or terrorism.
But it’s high time reality set in and we understood this to be an issue of nationalism manipulating religion to its ends. Many of the Jewish Temple Mount activists claim that they are pursuing a civil rights issue. After all, they argue, if the Muslim right to pray at their third holiest site is sacrosanct, shouldn’t the Jewish right to pray at their holiest site be at least as high a priority?
Sorry, but that’s not what this is about. Religious Zionism has twisted many Jewish precepts over the years. But even Israel’s chief rabbis have reiterated continuously that Jews must not pray on the Temple Mount or even walk upon it for fear of treading upon the area of the Holiest of Holies, which was inside the Temple and where only the High Priest may enter.
Religious Zionists are split on this issue, as some religious leaders have, in a rather arbitrary fashion, decided that going up to the Temple Mount is acceptable. And, it must be noted, that this notion is an entirely modern phenomenon. It is only in recent years that even religious Zionists have tried to completely negate this particular tenet of Jewish tradition, which has been undisputed for most of our history.
As with so many issues regarding Israel, this is not about Judaism. In fact, it’s not about the terms of much of mainstream Zionism, either. It is a brazen effort by far-right nationalists, some because of a radicalized messianism, some with more secular motivations, to lay claim to Jewish rule over Jerusalem as a whole. It is of a piece with the escalating efforts by Jewish Israelis to spread the colonization of East Jerusalem in the hope of making a unified, Jewish Jerusalem a fait accompli.
Israel is playing with fire on a number of levels here, with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Thus far, the government has been justified in its belief that the United States and Europe would do nothing more than issue the usual condemnations, not recognizing that Israel’s actions could make compromise on Jerusalem a practical impossibility.
But at some point the US and EU must recognize that if Israel continues to increase its antagonism on the issue of Jerusalem, it’s going to radicalize a lot more than just the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as complicate their efforts against IS and other concerns in the Arab World. If they don’t take some action to reign Israel in soon, they will also be paying the consequences.