Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Hit Critical Levels

Tensions in Jerusalem escalated significantly today. These tensions began with a Palestinian attack on light rail passengers October 22. Next, activist Yehuda Glick was shot by a Palestinian assailant on October 29. This morning a Palestinian drove a minivan into a crowd waiting for the light rail, killing one and injuring 13. Hours ago another Palestinian drove a car into 3 IDF soldiers in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet blamed Palestinian President Abbas for the 10/22 attack. Netanyahu's primary aim in doing so was to shore up support among his base in preparation for Likud party primaries, which may be held December 25. His secondary aim was to de-legitimize President Abbas as a leader and ease international and US pressure on Israel to negotiate a solution to the conflict that Bibi fears would leave Israel vulnerable. 

However, the original attack turned out to be a spate of attacks by Hamas. The group claimed responsibility for the attack this morning and an earlier attack on October 22. President Abbas, a Fatah party member, extended condolences to the family of the man who shot activist Yehuda Glick, and called Israel's closure of the Temple Mount a declaration of war. Both are extremely unhelpful steps to say the least. But the available evidence points much more towards Hamas than to Abbas as the culprit. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's talking points were set before the Israeli government may have realized the 10/22 attack was not a one-off event. The result is that the Israeli government finds its hands tied, rhetorically speaking.

By attacking soldiers in the West Bank, Hamas can provoke an Israeli reaction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank versus in Jerusalem. These terrorist attacks are designed to polarize Israel's population and rally Palestinian support behind a fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah. In addition, Netanyahu's Likud adversaries have put political pressure on him to act. Yet IDF action in the West Bank, even in response to terrorism or militant action, would exacerbate tensions. Checkpoints, roadblocks, and searches for attackers in heavily Palestinian areas would look eerily reminiscent of 2001-2005. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed Abbas for the violence, Israel is unlikely to get support from the Palestinian Security Forces for these activities. Jordan's recalling its ambassador from Israel today legitimizes these acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is also a move of dubious wisdom given protests which may occur in the country should a sustained campaign of violence break out.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for restraint, and it's likely he knows how dangerous the current situation is - both in the West Bank and in his party. But conflict is a two-player game and as with Operation Protective Edge, Israel could get drawn into a conflict.  

Israel is low on options here. It could communicate to President Abbas that car attacks show Fatah is losing control of the West Bank. However, Bibi must maintain an anti-Abbas line to remain consistent, and Abbas gains legitimacy from rhetorically attacking Israel. Israel could reach out to Egypt to communicate with Hamas, but given Egypt's ongoing campaign in the Sinai such efforts may be of limited effect. US efforts to calm tensions will not be backed up with a threat and thus are of limited utility. Ultimately, if Hamas is looking for a conflict, it will be very hard for Israel to stop it from happening.

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