It seems there are almost as many explanations for the current terror wave plaguing Israel as there are people trying to explain it. We’re told it’s caused by economic despair, rage at the occupation, hatred of Jews, alarm (false or otherwise) over the Temple Mount, and incitement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Each theory offers some part of the full truth. Still, it’s ironic that the theory with the least basis in truth is the one adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his main response to the crisis: blaming the attacks on incitement by Abbas.
There are three main flaws in Netanyahu’s accusation. There’s also one important truth.
The first and most obvious flaw is that for years Israel’s leaders have been calling Abbas “irrelevant.” They claim he’s lost any real support on the Palestinian street and clings to power only through corruption, control of the security forces and a simple refusal to call elections.
All of which prompts the question: If Abbas has lost his support, why are these youngsters following him? How can you incite people to rash acts, ending in almost certain death, when nobody listens to you?
Netanyahu’s charge of incitement rests mainly on two recent Abbas speeches. One was September 30 before the United Nations. The other was an October 14 televised address to the Palestinian people from his Ramallah office. Both speeches were focused mostly on Israel’s mistreatment of a blameless Palestinian people.
In September, Abbas complained that the Palestinian state called for in the 1947 U.N. partition decision never came into being, ignoring the Palestinian refusal that prevented it. In October he lamented Palestinian children killed by Israelis, including one who wasn’t actually killed, while ignoring Israeli children butchered or orphaned by Palestinian terrorists during the same period. Nowhere did he mention the years of terror attacks against Israelis, attacks that destroyed Israel’s peace camp and erased the Israeli public’s sympathy for Palestinian aspirations.
Remarkably, Abbas didn’t even take credit for his security forces’ work, which helped turn the past few years into some of the most terror-free in Israel’s history. That would have meant acknowledging Palestinian terrorism.
Nowhere did he tell the Israeli people he understood their fears and hoped to open a new chapter. Anwar Sadat spoke to Israelis’ hearts and got back the Sinai. But that’s not for Abbas. He follows a long line of Palestinian leaders stuck in a dead-end narrative of exclusive Palestinian victimhood.
The kindest thing you can call it is a missed opportunity. The worst, considering his repeated praise for “martyrs” and prisoners, is a tacit endorsement of terrorism.
Netanyahu, for his part, could have chosen to focus on Abbas’s half-truths and timorous leadership. Instead he’s trained his ire on Abbas’s charge that Israel aims to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. Netanyahu, in reply, notes that the Israeli government is committed to maintaining the status quo, which has held since 1967: full Muslim religious control of the Mount. To say otherwise, Bibi reiterates in a steadily rising crescendo, is a big lie.
A better term for it might be “big inaccuracy.” As for the prime minister’s reply, it might be called a “big half-truth.” It’s true that the Israeli government has not changed its 48-year-old policy. But it’s also true that there’s a very lively Israeli movement seeking to end the status quo, first by permitting Jewish prayer, eventually by rebuilding Solomon’s Temple and restoring animal sacrifice. Well-funded institutes in Jerusalem are preparing the sacrificial implements and training hereditary priests in their use.
It was once a lunatic fringe. Today it’s a growing movement with strong support in the Orthodox community. It includes ministers in Netanyahu’s Cabinet and lawmakers from his own Likud party, some of whom have ostentatiously visited the Mount to show support. Organized groups visit the Mount regularly, ostensibly as tourists, actually to establish a surreptitious Jewish ritual presence. Visitors pride themselves on defying the status quo by clandestinely praying while there, sometimes mumbling the prayers to themselves, sometimes standing in groups, seemingly chatting but actually reciting sacred texts.
Netanyahu tacitly acknowledged the problem recently when he barred elected officials from visiting the Mount. And yet, from the other side of his mouth, he angrily insists there’s no problem. In fact, there is a problem. True, the problem isn’t Israeli government policy, as Abbas claims. But it’s also true that the Israeli government doesn’t have a good record on facing down religious radicals.
Abbas is playing a familiar game. He’s inflating the government’s role, taking statements by second-tier government officials and state-employed rabbis and presenting them as reflecting Israel’s true intentions. It’s a game Israelis have been playing for years, using Palestinian officials, state imams and “true intentions.” It’s not exactly a lie, but it’s deceptive and destructive whichever side does it.
Now, by one obvious measure, these comparisons are deeply unfair. There’s no comparing Netanyahu’s refusal to acknowledge a problem of Orthodox Jews moving their lips near a Muslim shrine with Abbas’s refusal to acknowledge 45 years of terrorist mass-murder. But there’s another measure: One problem risks sparking a world war while the other doesn’t.
There’s another big flaw in the Abbas-as-inciter-in-chief thesis. Beyond his Temple Mount exaggerations, beyond his one-sided presentation of Palestinian victimhood, a consistent theme in Abbas’s speeches is the demand for a two-state solution with a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. Not instead of Israel.
As he told the U.N., he’s demanding “the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty and independence in their State alongside the State of Israel.”
Here’s what he said in his October 14 address to the Palestinians: “Peace, security and stability will not be achieved unless the occupation ends and a Palestinian independent state with its capital, East Jerusalem, on the borders of the fourth of June 1967 is established.” That is, the 1967 borders (or the equivalent, as negotiators have agreed) should be a springboard to peace, security and stability, not to further battles. That’s not incitement.
There’s one more thing Abbas said on October 14 that’s gone unnoticed: “We will continue our legitimate national struggle, which is based on our right to defend ourselves and on nonviolent popular resistance and political and legal struggle.” That’s a strange thing to say after weeks of violence — unless he means that nonviolent resistance is okay, but violence isn’t. That’s not incitement either.
Nearly all the attacks of the past month have been perpetrated on Israeli sovereign or sovereign-claimed territory by Arab citizens or residents of Israel. With a few exceptions, they haven’t spread to the West Bank. As Israel’s Shin Bet security service reported to the Cabinet on October 11, Abbas’s security services have been maintaining cooperation with Israel despite the unrest, keeping a tight lid and preventing the unrest from turning into a full-scale uprising, on Abbas’s personal orders.
And that’s the bitterest irony of all: Abbas’s troops are having an easier time keeping a lid on things than all of Israel’s vaunted security forces. Whatever the proximate cause of the outbursts, the solution is obvious: Israel must separate itself from the Palestinians and let them run their own lives. Not because Palestinians like Israelis, but because they don’t.
Why, then, would Netanyahu pick Abbas as the bad guy? The question almost answers itself. Discredit Abbas and there’s nobody left to talk to, leaving the current situation, however untenable, as the only option. Which is just how Netanyahu and his allies seem to want it.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).