Avoiding an ‘Obama Intifada’

In recent weeks, the Israeli media has been tirelessly debating the same question: will current developments in the West Bank lead to a third intifada? If so, will the Palestinian Authority security forces be able to suppress it? How should Israel respond if they fail to do so? The purpose of this discussion seems to have several aims: (1) stir panic; (2) undermine the relationship between Israel’s actions and the possibility of a new intifada; and (3) make us think the PA could, if only it wanted to, suppress the violence.

Unfortunately, all these aims rest on false assumptions. They assume the reality of a third intifada is a binary: it is either happening or it is not. They undermine the implications of Israeli actions (such as the death of a Palestinian prisoner or attacks of Jewish youths of Arab-Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) on the Palestinian street. Finally, they assume that countries can still influence other countries’ populations via their leaders.

The first assumption is that violence is a binary state. In reality, violence lies on a wide spectrum – is throwing rocks violent? Is burning tires and blocking major intersections violent? Does one rocket from Gaza constitute violence? All these incidents took place recently. The second assumption is that Israeli actions or inaction have little to do with the level of violence. But a type of ‘order’ Israel maintains in the West Bank is easily shaken by a death of a prisoner in Megiddo prison, continued settlement expansion and lack of political horizon. Finally, the assumption that millions of civilians can be influenced, controlled or manipulated through their leaders has been proven wrong numerous times, with recent examples from countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, Syria and others.

Predictions are difficult to make in a flat world, as we find ourselves in a perpetual state of surprise. In this vein, even if current developments in the West Bank were to pick up speed and graduate into a full-fledged intifada, it will most likely look very different from the intifada of 2001, which looked very different from the intifada of 1987. It may be characterized by low intensity, yet ongoing activity with occasional spikes in violence; it may target Jewish settlers as opposed to IDF soldiers; or it may be something else altogether. It may also take some time to gain momentum, for a variety of internal reasons that have nothing to do with Israel.

In one of his Newsweek columns, Peter Beinart predicted the Obama administration’s new Mideast strategy would be in the form of a “benign neglect”. But neglect can never be benign – and as recent developments in the West Bank show, this neglect runs the risk of turning isolated violent incidents into a much broader eruption of violence – especially in the weeks leading up to President Obama’s visit to Israel.

Israel has been practicing its own form of “benign neglect” for years – collect intelligence, protect all main roads and settlements, ‘contain’ breakouts of violence, wait for the next round. This form of neglect includes public statements about the “two-state solution”, while privately claiming that the conflict cannot be resolved, but only ‘managed.’  This also explains why Israeli analysis of the question ‘’will there be a third intifada’’, often comes from a mere military standpoint, as if the current state of affairs is part of the world’s natural order – and anything disrupting this order is rendered an offense to nature itself. At best, therefore, we ought to get used to reality of a low intensity conflict characterized by spikes in violence. If this approach continues, Israel’s form of benign neglect could easily turn deadly, especially in the weeks leading up to President Obama’s scheduled visit to Israel.

The recent deal signed between Israel and the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which ended the hunger strike in exchange for a series of improvements in the prisoners’ living conditions, is a first positive step. Israel should also announce a partial settlement freeze, learn from past mistakes such as announcing the building of new homes in Jewish settlements during the visit of a high American official, and renew the transfer of funds withheld from the PA following the Palestinian status upgrade at the UN last November. These are all practical steps Israel can easily take – steps the government has in fact already approved.

Together, these measures can make the difference between lowering and increasing the flame in the Palestinian street.

About the Author
Talia Gorodess is Director of Socio-Economic Development at the Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based NGO. Talia is an Israeli-American social activist currently residing in London as part of the Atkin Fellowship.