Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
They didn’t even bother to conceal it. Israel’s sizeable military operation in the West Bank, though ordered after the kidnapping of three teenagers by what is most likely a Hamas cell, has devoted itself to a general rounding-up of that group’s personnel in the West Bank.
Nobody appears more satisfied with this than Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. His so-called reconciliation agreement with Hamas was conducted from a position of strength this time. Now he is stronger still. Why fight your own civil war when the Israelis are doing it for you?
Naturally, he needs to appear reasonably angry with Israel, and finds it helpful to be a target for Jerusalem’s verbal ire. Being denounced by Benjamin Netanyahu for insufficient verve in dismantling Hamas’s “terror infrastructure” is far more useful than the praise be received from Yair Lapid, Israel’s peace-minded Finance Minister. Though Lapid was trying to be helpful, his assistance will be as welcome as Ed Miliband praising David Cameron for “moderation” in European policy.
Israeli commentators have often argued, with good reason, that the Palestinians need their “Altalena moment.” This refesr to an episode during Israel’s “war of independence” in which its new armed forces, largely composed of members of the Haganah militia, opened fire on the Altalena, a ship loaded with weapons for the rival, and more extreme, Irgun militia, thus establishing the authority of the fledgling state’s institutions.
This is not Abbas’s Altalena. By taking on the Irgun, Ben-Gurion took a dangerous political risk, as well as the responsibility for unifying the Jewish community’s political and military efforts. Abbas has passed responsibility onto someone else. It is as though Ben Gurion had cooperated with British Mandate authorities in suppressing the Irgun following the bombing of the King David Hotel.
From a Palestinian perspective, Abbas’s behaviour is less than edifying, yet it may still turn out to Abbas’s advantage. The Israeli operation puts further pressure on an embattled Hamas, whose conduct since the kidnapping betrays signs that the group has been stumped by indecision. Had it either condemned the kidnapping as the work of a rogue cell, or used the Israeli operation as an excuse to start a more general uprising, its position might in the short term have been stronger. The first would have allowed it to appear sincere in its support for the new “unity” administration. The second could have brought about a war, and with it the possibility of strategic errors by Israel. The desultory response – a few rockets and some demonstrations – suggests an organisation too weak to fight, and too divided to make a virtue of peacemaking.
Nevertheless, the risk of miscalculation is high. Systematic search operations don’t tend to work. They usually simply antagonise the people who are searched but who aren’t hiding anything. More riots, unrest, and the killing of civilians (or people who can be presented as civilians, which is sufficient for those trying to “heighten the contradictions”) will make it harder for Abbas to continue tolerating Israel’s operation.
Abbas’s alternatives would each be bleak: to appear powerless and irrelevant, hastening demands for him to retire, or to attempt to divert any uprising away from him and against Israel, which would result in another bloody defeat at a time when the region’s attention is focused on other, far more serious crises.
Nor would either serve Israel. Abbas’s replacement is unlikely to be as pliable, at least at the beginning. Unless he ends up being Marwan Barghouti, he would have to prove himself through intransigence first. A third intifada might be less murderous than the second was, thanks to the West Bank security barrier, but it would wreak enormous economic damage.
Recovering the teenagers will require careful intelligence work, in which the cooperation of the Palestinian authorities is essential. Now that the Hamas men have been rounded up, Israel would be well advised to quit while it’s ahead.