Why Is Netanyahu Targeting Abbas for the Har Nof Massacre?

This past Tuesday saw the latest in a horrifyingly long line of atrocities in Jerusalem. Two armed Palestinians entered a synagogue in the Har 374713108_04a72adb2b_zNof 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.

A Proposed UNSC Ceasefire Plan For Gaza

The attempt to resolve the ongoing, albeit highly uneven, exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza has now reached the United Palestine_election_mapNations Security Council (UNSC). The draft proposal, initially pushed by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, bears many of the same hallmarks as the most recent Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The United States came late to the game, but at least so far, it appears supportive of the idea. It remains to be seen how this will play out as the proposed resolution nears Security Council consideration.

The goals of the West are clear. One, resolve the current violence. Two, remove the difficult blight of the assault on Gaza, which is a much more powerful motivator for people to join pro-Palestinian protests than the more banal occupation of the West Bank. And three, bring the Gaza Strip back under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

This last goal implies actualizing the unity government that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw as a casus belli. The actions he has taken—especially in June with the so-called “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” a massive sweep through the West Bank—were intended to destroy the agreement the PA and Hamas had struck earlier in the year.

The reason for stopping the violence is self-evident. With ongoing talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, and, most especially, the new recognition that the Islamic State is a threat that cannot be ignored, the last thing the EU and US need is ongoing turmoil between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, what they really need is the return of the peace process. Peace is not necessary, but the spectacle of diplomacy tends to lower the volume on protests in the West over the plight of the Palestinians.

Why Israel Will Dislike the Resolution

Those points address the first two goals, but the real meat is in the third one. Here we need to consider what the “elements” of the proposed UNSC resolution would say. Ha’aretz reported the following:

  • The return of control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
  • Security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities.
  • The prohibition of the sale or supply of all weapons and munitions to the Gaza Strip, unless authorized by the PA.
  • A commitment to preventing the financing of terrorism.
  • The lifting of “economic and humanitarian restrictions” on the Gaza Strip in order to enable the reconstruction, economic rehabilitation and development of the territory.
  • The full reopening of all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, “taking into account the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.”
  • An international mission monitoring and verifying implementation, investigating and reporting violations to both parties and to the Security Council, facilitating the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza and serving as a liaison between the parties.
  • Asking the UN Secretary-General to draft a plan to help the PA establish “effective governance” in Gaza.
  • Urging UN member states to contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction and help the PA to pay the salaries of civil servants in Gaza and increase the capabilities of its security forces.
  • A call for a return to the talks aimed at a two-state solution

The resolution would seem to enable a lifting of the seven-year long blockade of Gaza while addressing Israel’s security concerns, though it’s not at all certain that the Israeli government would agree with that evaluation of the draft’s terms.

At the same time, this resolution would restore the status quo ante of years gone by when the West Bank and Gaza were regarded as a single territorial unit, the building blocks of the state of Palestine. Netanyahu would undoubtedly regard that as a serious setback, and all the more so because it would mean not only that his ambition to destroy the Palestinian unity government had utterly failed, but also that the unified PA would have some degree of international imprimatur. It would, in short, become a fact of life.

But that particular fact is one even the United States wants to actualize. Netanyahu may have a very hard time convincing the US to employ its UNSC veto power on that basis; he may just have to swallow it.

Many in Israel will recognize the sense of it, but they are represented almost entirely by the opposition, including the Labor Party. Netanyahu’s right flank will be up in arms, to an extent that could threaten his ruling coalition. But he will not be able to do much if the UNSC approves this resolution.

A Conundrum for Hamas

For Hamas, the question becomes whether or not they still want to be part of a unified Palestinian government. The pressures that led them into unity still exist, many of them intensified in the wake of the massive destruction Israel has wreaked upon Gaza. And, with the possibility of lifting the blockade, there are new reasons for Hamas to feel pressed to accept such a resolution.

But things have changed a great deal since the unity agreement was signed. The PA, under Mahmoud Abbas, continued its close cooperation with Israel in maintaining security in the West Bank throughout Israel’s massive West Bank operation in June and the bombardment and invasion of Gaza later in the summer. Abbas’ public standing was reduced to almost zero, and Hamas accordingly has reason to distrust his leadership.

Hamas can easily make the case that continued cooperation with Abbas after such collaboration would be yet another betrayal of the Palestinian people. More than that, though, they will be faced with a stark choice: abandon their identity as an armed resistance movement and hope there will be elections in the near future that will give them a secure place in the government; or, defy the will of the United Nations and escalate their struggle against not only Israel, but also the Palestinian Authority. Given the circumstances of recent events, neither of those options can be very palatable for Hamas.

Hamas’ resources and structural ability to govern Gaza have been crippled, and they simply have no means to address Gaza’s current economic and humanitarian devastation. If they refuse to cooperate with a UNSC resolution like this one, which seems to be gaining momentum, they will need to tell the Palestinian people why they are preventing the lifting of the blockade and refusing the sort of political unity that most Palestinians have considered a top priority for years.

Weakening Hamas is undoubtedly a driving force behind this resolution. If implemented, it would effectively de-fang Hamas while rescuing Abbas from political oblivion. After more than two decades of a fruitless “peace process” that only brought more destruction and Israeli settlements to the Palestinians, and Abbas’ cooperation with Israel, which has made him look like the worst kind of collaborator, the West is probably facing its last chance to keep its reliable partner in place.

Like past international peace plans for this region, the resolution is very advantageous for Israel. It omits any notion of investigations, much less charges, over Israel’s actions in Gaza, provides a solid system to ensure Israeli security, and addresses everything the Israelis have publicly said they were seeking from the bombardment of Gaza. It seems likely that, despite the Israeli public’s heavy rightward tilt, much of it would regard this plan as a good deal.

Fortunately, this resolution is also good for the Palestinian people. There are, to be sure, a huge number of pitfalls here, but an end to the territorial split between the West Bank and Gaza and to the split in the Palestinian leadership is an essential ingredient for any progress. Allowing the Gazan economy to start growing again is also imperative. Rebuilding the strip is an urgent necessity, especially since the shortage of water there, which was already a massive threat, has been greatly exacerbated by Israel’s onslaught.

It’s hard to see how those factors could outweigh the best interests of Hamas in the minds of most Palestinians. If this resolution is submitted and ultimately approved, Hamas will have to confront reality and ask whether it is fighting for itself, or for the Palestinian people.

Framing the Gaza Narrative

This article originally appeared in an edited form at LobeLog.

With U.S. bombs dropping in Iraq once again and Israeli troops having moved out of Gaza, the fighting between Hamas and Israel has 534910-schoolgazafaded a bit from the headlines. The battle for the narrative of the 2014 Gaza conflict is now stepping up its intensity, and, as usual, the truth seems to be losing.

If one wants to understand what has happened in Gaza and in Israel over the past few months, it is important to understand not only the underlying causes, but the immediate triggers as well. It is something of a victory that one of those underlying causes, the siege of the Gaza Strip, has remained in the center of discourse, after spending much of the past seven years off the radar and outside of diplomatic and media discussions.

But one overarching point has become a virtual theme not only in Israel, but in the United States and much of Europe as well. That point is that this latest conflagration started as a result of Hamas rockets being fired upon Israel. It is important to recognize that only a willful misreading of the timeline can bring about this conclusion. Continue reading

Ceasefire in Gaza: Where Things Stand

This article originally appeared at LobeLogUsed to be our house

With a 72-hour truce apparently holding and Israel also apparently having ended its ground operation in Gaza, it seems a fair time to assess where things stand now. Has anyone emerged from this in a better position than it was in before? Is there anything that can, at least in a cynical and Machiavellian sense be called a victory?

Palestine

It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of the physical destruction was borne by the people of Gaza. At this point, the numbers are just horrifyingly grim. 1,968 dead, of whom 1,626 were civilians. 7,920 wounded, and while there is not a precise percentage of civilians among the wounded, we do know there were 2,111 children and 1,415 women among them.

The already damaged and sole power plant in Gaza was damaged even further, leaving most of the Strip without electricity. The United Nations Development Program estimates between 16 and 18,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed and over half a million Gazans (out of a population of roughly 1.8 million) have been internally displaced. Continue reading

Is Hamas Winning?

An edited version of this piece first appeared at LobeLog

When Israel, or any country, engages in armed conflict with a guerilla group, even if that group controls significant territory and resources, it is a virtual truism that the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the gains for the non-state actor. In Gaza, Hamas’ quasi-governmental position still leaves it in the role of the guerilla enemy. And with the events of the past few days, it is worth asking if Israel is not losing this “war.” Continue reading