Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

West Bank crackdown raises peril for both Abbas and Netanyahu

Analysis: Israel’s military operation is bad PR for the PA, but its collapse would pose a serious crisis for Israel

Ten days after three Israeli teens were kidnapped in the West Bank, Israel’s crackdown on Hamas continues, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is under growing pressure, more Palestinian casualties are reported every day, and there is still no sign of the abducted Israelis or their captors. A single incident has raised fundamental questions about the viability of the political and security status quo that has prevailed in the West Bank for more than a decade.

On Saturday evening, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces that entered central Ramallah, where the PA is headquartered. Palestinian policemen, who were also confronted by the protesters, responded with live fire, and Mahammoud Ismail Atallah Tarifi, 25, is said to have died of gunshot wounds — the fourth Palestinian fatality since the Israeli military began its current operation in the West Bank and the second in the last 24 hours as the situation threatens to spin out of control.  

Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frankel entered a car in a West Bank junction on the evening of June 19. Shortly afterward, one of them was able to call the police and whisper, “I was kidnapped,” before the call was cut off. Searches for the trio began only in the early morning, though, and by then, the teens and their kidnappers were nowhere to be found. Because of the time that has passed without any contact from the kidnappers and the difficulty of holding three captives in the tightly monitored West Bank, many suspect that the three teens are no longer alive.

Since the Israeli military operation began on June 20, more than 300 Palestinians have been arrested, most of them members of Hamas’ political arm and its various charities and civilian organizations. More than 50 prisoners who had been released as part of the deal under which Hamas freed captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 were rearrested. The Palestinian population of Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city, remains under lockdown, and the army has entered other Palestinian towns as well — some for the first time since the first intifada. In a recent statement, PA President Mahmoud Abbas called the military operation “excessive” and condemned the killing of three Palestinians “in cold blood” by Israeli forces.

Abbas has cause for concern. Israel’s response to the abduction poses a threat to the legitimacy of his leadership in Palestinian eyes and to his greatest achievement: forcing Hamas to support his government and his bid for Palestinian statehood.

Israel has not thus far offered any evidence to back its claim that Hamas was behind the teens’ disappearance. The Israeli media suggests that the kidnapping was the work of a rogue Hamas cell — probably from Hebron — acting on its own. Even so, that would help Israel make its case to the international community that Hamas is first and foremost a terrorist organization rather than a political one. The Israeli government hopes that any Hamas link to the abduction will persuade the EU and the U.S. to reconsider their recognition of the new Palestinian government, an administration of technocrats formed after the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. That goal may explain the vehemence of Abbas’ condemnation of the kidnapping and his apparent willingness to cooperate with the Israeli army’s crackdown on Hamas.

But the risks for Abbas in cooperating with the Israeli operation were clearly demonstrated by Saturday’s events in Ramallah. The PA was facing a legitimacy crisis even before the abduction crisis, with more and more Palestinians — especially young activists — viewing it as a corrupt regime whose security collaboration with Israel has made it part of the infrastructure of the occupation rather than a vessel for liberation. Ironically, perhaps, Hamas was beginning to be viewed in a similar light in recent years, but Israel’s crackdown could help the organization renew its image as the alternative to Fatah most feared by the occupier.

As far as Hamas is concerned, the abduction crisis could see some of its street credibility restored, but its desire to be recognized as a key political player in foreign capitals will take a blow if a Hamas link to the teens’ disappearance is proved. As with attempts to reach a cease-fire during the second intifada and after Hamas’ election victory in 2006, a link to the kidnapping would leave the impression that the movement’s political leadership is having troubles controlling its armed operatives.

The abduction crisis has helped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recover from the domestic political setbacks of recent months, when he faced challenges from right and left and talk of early elections. Despite vigorous lobbying and public relations efforts, Netanyahu and his hawkish government were widely blamed for the collapse of the peace process. U.S. sources told the local and international media that it was Netanyahu’s decisions to advance settlement construction and postpone the release of Palestinian prisoners that killed the talks. Stronger European measures against the settlements seemed inevitable, and Netanyahu’s more centrist coalition partners such as Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid began to feel pressure to distance themselves from the prime minister’s handling of the peace process. Even Netanyahu’s effort to find a loyal successor to Shimon Peres as the country’s president — the symbolic head of state — failed miserably with the election to that position of Likud maverick Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu’s political troubles, however, were put aside as soon as news of the abduction broke, in keeping with a tradition of the Israeli media’s and public’s rallying behind the government and security forces at such moments. Opposition legislators are reluctant to criticize the government or even demand parliamentary oversight right now, and there’s very little critical reporting in the media.

The long-term implications of the kidnapping, however, carry more peril for the Israeli leadership, because of its contradictory policy on the PA. On one hand, Netanyahu treats the PA as an adversary, claiming Abbas collaborates with terrorists and denies Israel’s right to exist. On the other, Netanyahu’s greatest achievement and the secret to his long survival in power is the relative calm that Israelis have enjoyed during his tenure — a calm ensured largely by the PA, whose huge security budget is dedicated to protecting Israelis rather than Palestinians.

Israel’s deepening hold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past two years and the waning prospect of any diplomatic agreement to end the occupation have coincided with a deteriorating security situation. In 2012 not a single Israeli was killed in the West Bank, but 2013 saw increased attacks on soldiers and settlers, and 2014 will see an even higher total. The right will demand tougher action against Palestinians, and the center and the left will criticize Netanyahu for his diplomatic failure — and the growing threat of international isolation it has brought. Despite saber-rattling rhetoric, Netanyahu has been relatively judicious in the use of military power, but developments on the ground might change that.

Recent regional developments should serve as a serious warning sign for Israel, which partly relies on the PA to keep the Syrian-Iraqi chaos at bay. Iraq has just demonstrated how quickly a foreign-trained army can abandon its post and collapse, instantly turning its Western-supplied arms from an advantage into a serious problem. A collapse of the PA could present Israel with its greatest challenge since the second intifada.

Images of Palestinian policemen standing idle as Israeli forces clash with protesters are going viral on Palestinian social media, along with snarky remarks on the role Abbas and his government are playing. The line being walked by the PA is becoming thinner with every passing moment, and with it an arrangement that has arguably suited Israel more than anyone else.

While the PA will probably survive the current escalation, events of the past week have served up a stark reminder that the West Bank status quo has grown so precarious that it can be dramatically disrupted — even potentially collapsed — even by a single action of a wild card cell. And prospects for a political solution to the underlying conflict appear more remote than ever.

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