In 1996, while serving as head of Aman, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Military Intelligence (MI), Maj.-Gen. Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon shocked the Israeli public in the days preceding elections by saying that Iran had preferred Labor leader and Prime Minister Shimon Peres over Likud and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ya’alon based his claim on intelligence sources. Regardless of the authenticity of his statement, it shouldn’t have been said publicly. It is forbidden for a military person to be involved in or seek to influence politics. Yet Ya’alon would rise to the rank of lieutenant general and become the IDF’s chief of staff, and in 2013, a defense minister in Netanyahu’s third-term cabinet.
He resigned in 2016, and recently joined the new political Blue and White party led by another former chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, who is challenging Netanyahu in the April 9 election. If Gantz forms the next government, Ya’alon will once again be Israel’s defense minister. His remarks 23 years ago showed that he lacked – at least then – sensibility and sensitivity.
Today Israeli intelligence doesn’t have information on who is the preferred candidate for Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.
Even if there is an estimate whom Tehran, Beirut, Ramallah or Gaza would like to see as their next rival in Jerusalem, Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman, the head of MI, and Nadav Argaman, the director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, are not dummies and wouldn’t say anything in public.
The Israeli intelligence community hasn’t identified any indications that Iran, Hezbollah, the PA, Hamas or Islamic Jihad intend to interfere in the Israeli elections. Nevertheless, they can if they wish. They can initiate terrorist attacks, launch rockets and increase tension along Israel’s borders prior to the election.
MI and Shin Bet intelligence assessments, which have been presented recently to the cabinet, clearly stated that neither Iran nor Hezbollah and neither PA nor Hamas plan to start a war or even a limited confrontation with Israel.
The only exception is the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which is under the spell of Iran and financially supported by it. The PIJ has its own agenda and from time to time tries to challenge both Hamas and Israel in its efforts to increase tension along the Gaza-Israel border.
Israel is also reluctant to find itself in a new violent confrontation. It is almost generally agreed, even by his bitter opponents, that Netanyahu is a very cautious leader and has led a very restrained policy to avoid war on all fronts, almost at any cost.
Surely he knows very well that a new war with painful consequences – IDF soldiers in body bags, wounded troops and damage to cities and the economy before the election – could imperil his chances to win it.
But a new round of violence could break out unintentionally by a miscalculation on either side. Any minor tactical incident carries the potential for a strategic explosion against the true will and intentions of both sides.
In Gaza, the volatile status quo has remained in place for the last year. Practically, Hamas has launched a war of attrition in which it controls the flames. If it wishes, Hamas provokes Israel by sending thousands of demonstrators to the Gaza border fence, launches explosive balloons and arson kites, hurls bombs, ambushes IDF troops and occasionally fires rockets or allows the JIP to be its subcontractor of violence.
Israel only responds in measure, attacking Hamas positions from the air and using sniper fire against the protesters. These exchanges go in cycles and waves. Strong and weak. Up and down.
But in the last weeks, Israel has been challenged not only in Gaza but also on the relatively quiet West Bank front. This is because Netanyahu’s right-wing government decided to freeze the transfer of 150 million dollars (half a billion shekels) to the PA.
This is money collected by Israeli authorities as taxes and levies on PA trade. Under the Oslo Accords and its economic appendices, Israel is the trustee that collects the money and gives it to the PA. This has to be made clear: it’s Palestinian money.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Israel has had no problems with the practice. It taxed and levied goods destined for the PA and immediately released and transferred the money to the PA. Since he came to power (for his second term) 10 years ago, Netanyahu accepted and never challenged the deal. But outflanked by his right-wing cabinet ministers and Knesset members, the prime minister bent under pressure.
Most recently, he sanctioned legislation to deduct substantial sums from the PA in proportion to its allocation of money to families of Palestinian terrorists.
The deducted cash is essential to the declining PA budget. The Israeli decision supplements a decision by the administration of US President Donald Trump to stop its aid to UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides basic necessities such as flour, rice, sugar and oil to Palestinian refugees, not only in Gaza and the West Bank but also in Lebanon, Jordan and war-torn Syria.
While in the Israeli discourse, the new law and the financial deduction seem logical as measures to discourage Palestinians from turning to terror, the Palestinian narrative is the complete opposite. In the eyes of those Palestinians whose relatives sacrificed their lives or those who are serving long-term prison terms, they are not terrorists but freedom fighters against the Israeli occupation. Supporting them is considered a sacred duty.
The American and Israeli punitive measures are already evident in the field. Public-sector workers (nearly 35%) in the West Bank already feel the effect in their pockets. The annual GDP per capita is nearly $2,000 compared to $40,000 in Israel, and their meager salaries are already in decline by 20-30%. These measure also affect the motivation of the Palestinian security services to continue their cooperation with the Shin Bet and the IDF in preventing terrorist attacks and in the struggle against Hamas.
Tirelessly, Hamas, via its specially designated commands in Gaza, Lebanon and Turkey, is trying to create a wedge between Israel and the PA, and set the West Bank on fire. In 2018, the Shin Bet and the Palestinian security forces thwarted 280 cells and attempts to carry out terrorist attacks by Hamas activists.
By freezing the money, Israel is shooting itself in the foot, countering its own interests. For years, the Netanyahu government has preached the sermon that the PA and Abu Mazen are “a partner” only for economic cooperation to improve the standard of living of the Palestinians – and not for peace. The Netanyahu government even coined the phrase, “economic peace.” Now it is declaring economic warfare.
The economic deterioration in the West Bank is supplemented by the reemergence of religious tension on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif). At the center is an old-new dispute regarding efforts by the PA and Jordan (which is a legally recognized party to the Islamic sacred sites) to sanction a small Muslim praying place on what is called the Golden Gate site (known as Bab al-Rahma) and Israeli action to foil these attempts by closing it.
The Israeli zigzag and lack of a coherent policy are even more evident in its double standards. While Israel is depriving the moderate PA of its tax money as a political move before the election, it is allowing the extremist Hamas to be showered with a monthly gift of 15-20 million dollars. The money is donated by Qatar, supposedly to create jobs and support the poorest families in Gaza, and there are many of them. But some of it is diverted by Hamas to strengthen the capabilities of its military wing.
Some commentators believe that due to the lack of an overall policy regarding the Palestinian issue, Israel is like a firefighter using his hose to control the flames whenever the blaze spreads, instead of removing the source of it. They interpret Israeli actions as an effort to reduce violence and manage the conflict without resolving it.
But this writer has his own suspicions that there is a systematic logic behind Israel’s behavior. It might be directed at dividing or splitting the Palestinian people between two entities, Gaza and the West Bank, and between two governing bodies, Hamas and the PA, in order to bury the notion of a two-state solution – a notion which is already on its deathbed. Yossi Melman tweets at yossi_melman.
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