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Neri Zilber on Abbas, Palestine, and Intifada

In this Foreign Affairs Unedited podcast, Neri Zilber talks with Sam Winter-Levy, assistant editor, about Abbas, the Palestinian authority and the possibility of a third intifada.

Read the article, The Missing Intifada.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. 

 

WINTER-LEVY: The end of July, arsonists believed to be Jewish terrorists firebombed a home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing an 18-month-old Palestinian child and his father. Do we know anything yet about the motives behind this attack?

ZILBER: We do not. The perpetrators, they're still at large. But overwhelmingly, the consensus among the Israeli security establishment and the political class is that this was the work of Jewish extremists, like the extremists settlers living in the West Bank.

WINTER-LEVY: So, this could be a deliberate attempt by settler extremists to escalate tensions to send a message to the Israeli government?

ZILBER: It's believed so. People don't think that this was an isolated incident or just something that happened on a whim.

WINTER-LEVY: And what's happened in the West Bank since those attacks?

ZILBER: Well, it's interesting. We've seen an uptake in tensions slightly. Lone Wolf, what is described as Lone Wolf Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in the West Bank, but nothing... No high levels of unrest have been seen since that attack which actually came as a surprise to many observers and even, I would argue, the Israeli authorities, because really it was almost a perfect storm as it were coming on the heels of heightened tensions anyway and then having this very tragic and very fatal attack on this Palestinian family. And yet the West Bank remains, relatively speaking, calm.

WINTER-LEVY: So, why has the reaction been so muted, relatively? Why haven't we seen an outbreak of a Third Intifada?

ZILBER: Well, this is what my article gets into the reasons why we haven't seen a Third Intifada yet, not only coming out of the Duma attack at the end of July, but also going back now a number of years. I've predicted Third Intifada, whether due to events on the ground like a Duma attack and previous type of settler attacks and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground or even in the international arena, for example, a few years ago when the Palestinians went to the UN General Assembly seeking statehood. The notion back then during these various events was that this would lead to widespread unrest emanating from the West Bank, and yet this is a dog, as a word, that has not barked yet, that refuses to bark. And the reasons I would argue for this refusal to bark and the maintenance of the stability in West Bank is the decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership to maintain security and order.

WINTER-LEVY: There's deliberate restraint being shown by Abbas and the Fatah leadership?

ZILBER:  This is on the one hand, a decision of commission to go after Hamas activists that are seeking themselves to foment unrest, containing Palestinian demonstrations to Palestinian cities before they reach settler checkpoints... Settler settlements and military checkpoints, and also not mobilizing the various organs and patronage networks of the Palestinian Authority government itself. So on the one hand, it's an act of commission, and also on the other hand, it's an act of omission. The Palestinian leadership, I would argue, is not inciting unrest. It's not calling on its people to either take to the streets or actually undertake violent acts against Israelis in retaliation as they see it.

WINTER-LEVY: And in past Intifadas in the First Intifada in 1987, and the Second Intifada in 2000, you would argue that the Palestinian leadership was quite instrumental in driving the sustained upheaval that we saw then.

ZILBER: I would argue, yes, that's what we saw in the past. There are obviously quite big differences between what we saw in the First Intifada in the late '80s, early '90s and the Second Intifada in the early years of the 2000s. However in both cases, we did see a leadership hand at work. These weren't, as it's popularly perceived, spontaneous uprisings by the people. There was an element to that in both cases. But if there wasn't any guiding hand, any encouragement and organization by the Palestinian leadership, then it's likely that these, both events, both the First Intifada and the Second Intifada which lasted for a number of years wouldn't have been sustained for as long as they were sustained.

WINTER-LEVY: So, why now is the Palestinian leadership reluctant to launch another Intifada?

ZILBER: Well, I think there are three reasons. Number one, it's an act of self-preservation. So, they understand that this could very easily spiral out of control and cost them, whether their own leadership positions, their jobs, and even their lives as Palestinian leaders, opening a pathway for Hamas perhaps in the West Bank. That's one reason, self-preservation. Number two, there is ongoing security cooperations between the Palestinian Authority Security Forces and Israel, so operationally you see both of them pursuing the same goal and working in tandem albeit quietly and under the radar. But number three, and I would argue the most important, is that the Palestinian leadership, the current Palestinian leadership really has taken a principled stand against the utility of violence to pursue their political ends. In other words, they truly believe that violence will not succeed and is counter-productive to their goal which is a two-state solution and peace in that part of the world.

WINTER-LEVY: And this doesn't seem to be recognized by many in Netanyahu's administration who continue to see Abbas as inciting violence.

ZILBER: Correct. Certain Israeli politicians primarily from the right, like to blast Abbas and like to describe him as an instigator, as not a partner for peace. Now, they might believe this or it might just be rhetorical and very useful for their own political ends. However it's important to note that the Israeli security establishment, whether the idea of itself or other organs of the Israeli authority don't see it that way. They very much do believe, and they say this in closed sessions even to the politicians, that Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership is actually a partner for peace and is doing a lot to maintain the calm that we see currently in the West Bank.

WINTER-LEVY: So why isn't the Israeli government engaging in talks with Abbas then? There are rumors they've re-opened indirect negotiations with Hamas in Gaza, but still no talks with the Palestinian Authority.

ZILBER: That's right. Now, they do have a relationship with the Palestinian Authority which is ongoing, which is something that isn't the case with Hamas in Gaza, although as you mentioned, there are indirect negotiations ongoing with Hamas with regard to a longer term ceasefire. Now the irony here is that while Hamas fought a almost two-month war with Israel last summer and now with an eye to perhaps cutting a deal with the Israeli government, in the West Bank, we see the opposite. That we see a Palestinian Authority leadership that has actually worked with Israel and maintained the stability and the calm in the West Bank. And as you mentioned, there hasn't been any negotiations or talks to build on that and to expand the partnership and the mutual strategic interests that very much, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority leadership both hold.

WINTER-LEVY: And you see this as a missed opportunity?

ZILBER: I do. A missed opportunity to build on it for something longer lasting, but also in the short term. It's very much a battle for the hearts and minds of the average Palestinian.

WINTER-LEVY: And what has to change in the Israeli domestic politics for the government to start talking seriously with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

ZILBER: Well Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister, has certain domestic constraints, that's true, and it shouldn't be understated. However, I think Netanyahu should follow the advice of his own security professionals and at the very least build on the mutual strategic interests that lie between Ramallah and Jerusalem, things like access and movement... Freeing up access and movement for Palestinians in the West Bank, increasing work permits for Palestinians to go and work inside Israel, perhaps opening up certain areas of the West Bank that are under full Israeli control for Palestinian economic development or agriculture. I mean, all of these can go a long way, number one, in improving the daily lives of the Palestinians and number two, and perhaps more importantly than that, politically to send a message that violence does not pay and that negotiations and nonviolence actually will lead to better outcomes in the future for the Palestinians.

WINTER-LEVY: And are you optimistic for the next few years? I mean there are huge question marks over who will succeed Abbas. There is no guarantee that the Palestinian Authority will continue to be so restrained. Could this be a small window of opportunity that's fast closing?

ZILBER: Just like certain people have been arguing that Third Intifada is imminent or will break out due to event X or Y, I think there is still a window to build on the strategic interests that lie between the Palestinian Authority Leadership and Israel, as I mentioned, and also to, as it were, put in place a certain structure as Abbas transitions out of his presidency and as a successor is identified and himself rises to the leadership position, to institutionalize a... Whether it'd be negotiations or talks or even a certain kind of relationship that holds, at least, the possibility of future positive movement on longer term issues, like peace process and the final settlement of the conflict.

 

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