December 14, 2018

The Third Intifada?: Violence rises as a two-state solution fades

Reading “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,” an illuminating new book by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, is a humbling experience. I read it over Sukkot and, in fact, it was the right book for a holiday during which one makes one’s home in a temporary shelter made of fabric and wood. The book is quite good in delivering the message that many predictions are no more permanent, no less temporary, than the sukkah. Thus, reading it is an experience that could make even the boldest pundit, if he really understands what he is reading, wary of any attempt to predict the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the two-state solution. Because humans in general aren’t great at making predictions, perhaps the experts least of all. 

Then again, Tetlock and Gardner wrote their book not just to humiliate us; they wrote it to show us a way toward improvement. One lesson they emphasize time and again is the importance of constantly updating one’s predictions, of not getting stuck in a frame of mind that won’t change. In fact, one of the things that makes laymen better than the experts at making predictions is the layman’s ability to acknowledge an error and move on to changing his mind. The expert, the book explains, is invested in his thesis and finds it difficult to alter it — while for the layman, a prediction in a field in which he has limited knowledge, and around which his career wasn’t built, can be changed more easily. If circumstances change, prediction ought to as well. No strings attached.

Did the circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict change last week enough to modify one’s view of the situation? Many recall that when the First Intifada started in December 1987, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin — an expert, no doubt — was very slow to identify it. Since then, every time a sequence of Palestinian violence disturbs the calm, the prospect of a new intifada is declared. So there is a danger of overstatement. On the other hand, last week and the first days of this week gave observers lots of reasons to worry: Two speeches were made that highlighted the miserable state of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic engagement. And, as usual, speeches lag behind realities on the ground. In a boiling-hot West Bank and in Jerusalem, a wave of Palestinian violence erupted: Two parents were murdered in front of their children Oct. 1 in the West Bank. Then, two Israeli men were killed in a stabbing attack the night of Oct. 3 in Jerusalem. Stone throwing, demonstrations, clashes with police and military forces, chanting of slogans. And, of course, Israeli retribution and actions that resulted in Palestinians being killed. An 18-year-old Palestinian was killed in Tulkarem, and a 13-year-old Palestinian near Bethlehem. Thus, there is no surprise at the return of third intifada threats.

Jewish settlers gather during a demonstration near the site where an Israeli couple was shot dead in the West Bank. Photo by Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters

Is it really “it”? Another intifada is always a possibility, especially today. But one has to be cautious, as time and again the prophets of the third coming were proven wrong; time and again their predictions proved premature. They might be right this time, or wrong yet again. One thing that Tetlock and Gardner point out repeatedly is that experts are often reluctant to put their predictions to a scientific, methodical test. If the experts get it right, they will keep reminding their readers and viewers that they knew all along what was coming, but they also hold onto the option of getting it wrong in the hope that those same readers and viewers will forget. As they did after a third intifada was projected in November 2014, in February 2013, in 2010, in 2008 and in 2006. A third intifada has been constantly in the making since the end of the Second Intifada. 

Big initial break

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech Sept. 30 at the United Nations was filled with inaccuracies and culminated with a threat: “It is no longer possible to redress the issue of the blockage of the horizon of the peace talks with the same means and methods that have been repeatedly tried and proven unsuccessful over the past years.” If the current state of affairs does not improve in a timely fashion, he hinted, “we cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel, and Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power.” Hence, the threat: The Palestinians might decide to release themselves from the agreements of the Oslo Accords and dismantle the PA. Surely, a headache for Israel.

Israeli soldiers stand guard on a road near the West Bank city of Nablus Oct. 6. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Twenty-four hours after Abbas spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to the U.N. and did not seem intimidated by the Palestinian threat. “I remain committed to a vision of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said, and then, concisely, added the terms that diminish his commitment in the practical world. Netanyahu’s solution is “a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” Abbas showed no sign of willingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. So, given this, the question is whether the speeches made a bad situation worse — Abbas and Netanyahu have histories of making speeches that have made things worse — or merely demonstrated that the gaps between the two parties are as unbridgeable as they have been for the many years of unfruitful negotiations.

Netanyahu focused on Iran. He focused on Middle-East upheaval. His claim was simple: Only in the bizarre U.N. world is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a matter of high importance. “In four years of horrific violence in Syria, more than a quarter of a million people have lost their lives. That’s more than 10 times — more than 10 times — the number of Israelis and Palestinians combined who have lost their lives in a century of conflict between us. Yet last year, this Assembly adopted 20 resolutions against Israel and just one resolution about the savage slaughter in Syria. Talk about injustice. Talk about disproportionality. Twenty. Count them. One against Syria.” Namely, a reality check is necessary, so focus on the things that truly engage the region and the world. Abbas and his threats count for little when ISIS and al-Qaida and Hezbollah and Iran are at the door.

Netanyahu was bashed by the international community, including by U.S. President Barack Obama, when just before the last Israeli election he prophesized no Palestinian state in the coming term of the Israeli government. But this was not a slip of the tongue, nor does Netanyahu feel any urge to correct his prophesy. Yes, he still says he supports the two-state solution. But he leaves no doubt that this is not the right time for establishing a Palestinian state. Maybe later, when the Palestinians become Finns, as Israel’s Dov Weissglass, senior adviser of Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, once suggested. That is, when they become peaceful and neighborly and culturally ready to build a state based on democratic and liberal norms.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the United Nations on Oct. 1. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Is the two state-solution dead, then? Some observers believe the current Palestinian violence is a result of hopelessness. The peaceful solution is dead, long live the new solution — violence. But it should be said that for something to be dead, it needs to have been alive first, and whether the two-state solution was ever alive is at the core of an ongoing debate concerning Israel’s policies and its overall responsibility for the current situation. Last week, professor  Shlomo Avineri, a renowned and highly respected Israeli scholar, wrote an article that could cast some doubt on the “solution” ever having been alive. Avineri is no right-winger nor a Netanyahu enthusiast; he’s a former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under a Labor government (long ago). Hence, his article should not be considered as another propaganda measure from the current coalition. I assume with much confidence (and a measure of chutzpah) that Avineri did not vote for any of the parties that are members of the current coalition.

Looking at the “conflict” as if it is a “conflict in the framework of a struggle between two national movements” is an “illusion,” Avineri wrote. And he explains: “According to the Palestinians’ view, this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic entity (Israel). According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena — it will perish and disappear. Moreover, according to the Palestinian view, the Jews are not a nation, but a religious community, and as such not entitled to national self-determination, which is, after all, a universal imperative.”

The professor does not think that perpetuating an Israeli occupation of the West Bank is the logical conclusion of such analysis. But he thinks it is important to first understand the true nature of the conflict. When Abbas, in his speech and elsewhere, avoids talk about a Jewish state, this is not coincidence or negligence. (Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, responded to Avineri, and disputed some of his claims — but there is no doubt that most Israelis would side with Avineri.) From such analysis, one conclusion is certainly valid: If the two-state solution is aimed at putting an end to the conflict, its chances of success are slim. Palestinians will take the land they are given and still want the Jewish state to disappear. Israelis would make the painful compromises but would still insist on their right to have a Jewish state. 

Children orphaned

So, is the peaceful solution dead? Killing it isn’t so simple because of the lack of great alternatives. Some Israeli right-wingers recently enhanced their effort to convince fellow Israelis that annexation of all of the land could be a practical idea. But Netanyahu, for good reasons, does not agree with those right-wingers. Most Israelis, for similar reasons, do not agree with them. And obviously, if what those Israelis mean by annexation is absorbing the land without giving Palestinians civilian rights, the international community is not going to accept the idea (not that it is happy with the current state of affairs). Other ideas also seem impractical. The so-called Jordanian solution (give the West Bank to Jordan) is not acceptable to Jordan (it also doesn’t solve the Gaza situation). An international mandate over the area is not acceptable to Israel (truly, Israel has good reason to have little trust in international monitoring of anything concerning its security). 

Is the two state-solution dead, then? Some observers believe the current Palestinian violence is a result of hopelessness.

The New York Times, after Abbas’ U.N. speech, called the Palestinian president “an acutely bitter man.” He has many reasons to be bitter. From his point of view, Israel has never been serious about finding a resolution to the conflict that would be even remotely acceptable to the Palestinians. Case in point: the settlements. A few hours after Netanyahu made his speech in New York, two Israeli parents were murdered in cold blood on their way home. They lived in Neriya, a settlement in Samaria. Four children, ages 8 months to 9 years, were in the car, when Palestinian gunmen shot Naama and Eitam Henkin. The children were physically unharmed. Yet they will grow up without parents, and some of them are likely to remember the most horrible evening of their lives forever. 

On Oct. 2, as the funeral was being held in Jerusalem, I decided to spend some time reading Eitam Henkin’s blog, on which he posted his scholarly articles, the latest of which, from June, dealt with rabbinical debates concerning the laws of the shemitah year, the year of sabbatical for the land. Henkin, according to all accounts from people who knew him, was a bright man, serious and meticulous in his studies. An article he wrote last November was more interesting for me to read: It tells a complicated story of a controversial rabbinic ruling concerning agunah (a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage, despite being separated from her husband) between the two world wars. A rabbi from London issued a relatively permissive ruling, with the intention to release thousands of agunot because of the war (their husbands who had disappeared during the war were presumed dead, but with no proof). Rabbis in Eastern Europe and in Israel — then Palestine — did not accept the ruling. It was a fascinating nugget of rabbinic history that the late Henkin chronicled without siding with either of the two rival factions.

On the evening of Oct. 1, just hours after the murder, a Facebook post by Naama Henkin from a year before she was killed was circulated. “Because of recent events and generally speaking,” she told her friends, there are questions she wondered about: “Do you have life insurance?” And an “advanced question: Do you have a will?” Naama Henkin, like most settlers living in remote areas of the West Bank, was well aware of the dangers she might encounter because of her choice of neighborhood. As a young mother, like many of her settler peers, she was troubled by the repercussions such dangers could have on her children. “What happens with them if God forbid …” she wrote in her chilling post. At the funeral on Oct. 2, 9-year-old Matan said Kaddish for his parents, and no eye was left without tear. 

When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin rose to speak, he had one message to share with fellow mourners: Arab terrorism has attempted to stop us from building our homeland from 1929 — the Tarpat Arab riots — until today. They did not stop us then, and they will not stop us now. In building even more, we will find our sense of consolation, he said. That weekend, he added the funeral of another victim of Palestinian violence to his schedule. This time his message was similar, but the issue at hand even closer to home and dearer to Israelis: Not the fate of Jewish settlements in Samaria, but rather of the ability of Jews to walk safely inside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Few leaders have control

The leaders of the PA believe settlement building is what is gradually making the two-state solution impractical. And they believe that Israel’s actions around the Temple Mount, and the growing tendency of right-wing, religious Israelis to want to visit the Mount, is the cause for the new round of violence. Both claims are not without grounds: Israeli settlements do create the impression that Israel intends to retain territory that the Palestinians would like to be a part of their future state. Israeli insistence that Jews have a right to visit the Mount does highlight the fact that Israelis have no intention of accepting the ridiculous, yet common, Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people never had a temple on that exact place. 

If Abbas was hoping to change Israeli minds by making a speech and a threat, he clearly failed. Israel doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority to dismantle itself, but Palestinians, yet again, will be the ones who suffer most if he decides to make good on his threat. Many Palestinian families rely on salaries from the PA, many have jobs as PA officials and as police. These people will feel the pain much more than Israelis. These people and their neighbors will face a lawless situation, and will have to cope with a violent and unstable atmosphere. The same is true if the security situation continues to deteriorate and if Israel feels the need to use harsher measures to prevent more attacks on Israelis.

Stone-throwing Palestinians clash with Israeli police in Sur Baher on Oct. 7. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

The PA keeps saying that it opposes the violence of recent days, and that it is, of course, opposed to terrorism. However, as tensions rise, Israelis are less likely to believe any Palestinian leader. Abbas refuses to denounce the brutal murder of innocent Jews at the end of last week, and, on Oct. 6, Israel’s Radio published a list of salaries that the Palestinian Authority is paying Palestinian terrorists — planners and executers of bombings that killed many dozens of Israelis. Two Palestinians involved in the attacks on Cafe Moment in Jerusalem, on Hebrew University and at the Sbarro restaurant have received thus far more than $130,000. Palestinians say it is “support for the families,” but Israelis, with good reason, understand this as support — if indirect — for the terrorist acts the PA is claiming to oppose. 

Sure — if the violence continues, and if the PA dismantles, Israel will suffer. 

Sure — Palestinians will suffer even more.

So you would think: Why would Palestinians want such a thing to happen? Why would they bet on an even worse situation than the one they cope with today? The answer is: They have done so many times in the past, and they might do it again. And, in fact, it will not even have to be a decision made by someone or a strategy that someone could explain. Abbas made his speech as a man assuming he has control over a situation, but life in the Middle East has taught us that few leaders have real power to truly control the dynamics after events are set in motion. Two days after the speeches — Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s — the ball was no longer in the hands of the Palestinian leader and, likewise, it was no longer in the hands of the Israeli leader. Sadly and dangerously, it might no longer be in anyone’s hands.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at