Salih Zeki Fazlioglu / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

A post-peace-process security crisis on the West Bank?

Analysis: Israel–Palestinian Authority security cooperation was premised on a vision that may be harder to conjure today

“We have to fight terror as if there were no peace talks,” former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously said in the early ’90s, “and we have to pursue peace as if there were no terror.” That statement may have defined the relationship between Israel and the then-nascent Palestinian Authority, established in 1994 as an interim administrative arrangement to prepare the way for Palestinian statehood. But events of the past few weeks have served up a morbid reminder that 20 years after the Oslo Accord, the peace process remains in long-term paralysis while a new wave of violence threatens to spiral out of control. Moreover, Rabin’s premise that Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the same goal has become difficult for either side to sustain.  

Israeli outrage over the killing of three teenage settlers abducted near Hebron has translated into a wave of citizen attacks on Palestinians on the back of a widespread Israeli crackdown, and the discovery of the body of a Palestinian teenager said to have been abducted in Jerusalem on Tuesday prompted fresh clashes as Palestinian protesters blamed Israeli settlers for the death.

Today, of course, there are no peace talks, nor is their absence temporary: Israel and the Palestinian leadership failed to agree on terms for a political solution to their conflict at the Camp David talks in 2000, and since then — periodic attempts to revive the conversation notwithstanding — if anything, the gulf between them has widened. Israel’s political median has moved steadily to the right since Rabin signed the Oslo Accord, while the political standing of PLO chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has steadily diminished in the face of challenges from Hamas and from the fact that settlements have continued to grow despite his peace efforts.

Underscoring what has been obvious for some time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in a speech Sunday night — before the discovery of the bodies of three teenage settlers who had been kidnapped and murdered — that Israel insists on maintaining control in the West Bank for the foreseeable future, citing mounting turmoil in Iraq and Syria.

“Israel's eastern security border will remain along the Jordan River,” Netanyahu said, adding that security arrangements in any future Palestinian entity would have to remain under Israeli supervision.

“The evacuation of Israel's forces would most likely lead to the collapse of the PA and the rise of radical Islamic forces, just as it did in Gaza,” the Israeli leader said. “It would also severely endanger the state of Israel.”

Abbas has always justified his faith in U.S.-led negotiations with Israel, and in cooperation with its security forces, as the only realistic path to ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. But Netanyahu is confirming in words what Palestinian and U.S. officials have long complained is signaled in deeds by Israel’s continued expansion of settlements — that whether negotiations continue or not, the occupation isn’t going anywhere.

That deprives Abbas of the narrative that his negotiations and administrative and security efforts are a path to Palestinian independence. Many of the young Palestinians now clashing with Israeli (and, sometimes, also Palestinian) security forces weren’t yet born when the Oslo Accord was signed, and have grown up with the PA as an integral part of the status quo.

“Abbas is now tarred in the eyes of the Palestinian public by cooperating too closely with Israel on security, and he is also tarred by Israel for getting into bed with Hamas,” wrote former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller. “For now, he is resisting Israeli calls to break the unity accord [with Hamas], which Israel opposes more than ever after the murders. If there's a significant escalation with Israel, and Hamas [leaders] and large numbers of Palestinians are killed, he'll be marginalized and sidelined only further — unable to end the occupation through either diplomacy or violence.”

If Abbas can no longer show that his road leads to an end of the occupation, that’s a major problem for the ability of the PA security forces to continue protecting Israel. Speaking at a Washington think tank in May 2009, Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. officer who mentored the PA security forces into being, was asked by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz about the problem of those Palestinian security men being seen in their own communities as collaborators.

Dayton answered that his men believed themselves to be the nucleus of the army of an emerging Palestinian state, and could therefore rationalize their service as Palestinian patriotism. But, he warned, that equation made progress toward Palestinian statehood an urgent priority. “With big expectations come big risks," Dayton reportedly told his audience. "There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not.”

And that was five years ago.

On the Israeli side, too, the assumptions underlying the peace process have changed — most important, the idea that the occupation of territories captured in the war of June 1967 would eventually be evacuated, in line with the international consensus enshrined in such documents as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. But the population of the settlements — all of which are deemed illegal by the U.N. Security Council  — has doubled since the Oslo Accord, and their political leadership forms a core constituency of the Netanyahu government.

The settler constituency is less concerned than Netanyahu is to at least publicly hew to the international consensus. His Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, has publicly advocated annexing most of the West Bank.

Israel’s security forces have been especially concerned to restrain citizens from taking matters into their own hands following the kidnapping of the teens, mindful of the damage that ongoing settler violence has done on the West Bank in recent years and of the danger that an escalation of such acts could trigger a wider Palestinian revolt.

Even if it can be argued that, each for their own reason, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas nor Hamas would benefit from a confrontation right now, dynamics on the ground are certainly producing new strains on their ability to avoid one. The kidnapping and its aftermath may have served to highlight the perils of the West Bank heading into what may be the first major security crisis of the post–peace process — a crisis from which the Oslo narratives may no longer offer a clear off-ramp. 

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