In the days that have passed since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared before the U.N, General Assembly that he was abrogating previous agreements with Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem have carried out dozens of terror attacks, some of them deadly, against Israelis.
It’s a situation that has led many analysts to speculate about the possibility of a third intifada (uprising) against Israel, and to worry about where such an enterprise will lead. Not that the first two intifadas were exactly picnics.
Intifada number one broke out in 1987 and petered out in the early 1990s. In propaganda terms, it was a definite victory for the Palestinians, as the world media was peppered with images of masked, protesting Palestinians throwing rocks at the well-armed IDF. Politically, it was distinguished by the fact that it was led by the nationalist and leftist Palestinian factions.
Intifada number two, launched by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 2000, was a far more dangerous affair, involving both the armed wing of Fatah, the main nationalist faction, as well as the Islamists of Hamas. Throughout the early part of the previous decade, Israel was under physical and psychological siege from suicide bombings and other atrocities perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists who demonstrated that, like Islamic State now, there are no limits to what they will do. The March 2002 bombing of a Passover seder at a hotel in Netanya, in which 30 Jews were murdered and more than 100 injured, was the bloodiest confirmation of that.
Yet that intifada petered out too, for many reasons, not least Israel’s construction—in the teeth of heavy Arab and world opposition, along with a rising tide of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism among Western publics—of a security barrier along its border with the West Bank. One can only shudder at the thought of how many Israelis might have been killed in the current round of violence had the barrier not been there.
In that sense, the Palestinians have a strategic decision to make. If they do launch intifada number three, what is their ultimate goal? How will they prevent it from failing like the last two? Put another way, will it leave their people in a better or worse position, both during and after its execution?
Palestinian leaders, whether nationalists or Islamists, don’t care about the day-to-day welfare of their people. They view the entire Palestinian population as an instrument of struggle, rather than as a collection of individuals and families who aim for a better quality of life for themselves and their nation.
Some groups, like the Al-Aqsa Brigades of Fatah or the Qassam Brigades of Hamas, engage Palestinians in violence: sniper attacks on Israeli vehicles in the West Bank, rocket attacks from Gaza, stabbings of the sort witnessed this week in Jerusalem and other locations, training and building up of terror cells across the West Bank, organizing confrontations with the Israeli army, and so on. As the three wars in Gaza over the last decade have proven, their overarching goal is to drag the Israelis into a prolonged armed conflict that will turn the world against the Jewish state.
Abbas himself goes both ways. Sometimes he encourages violence, other times he urges a quieting of confrontation. In terms of the Israelis, Abbas approaches them in a spirit of diplomatic confrontation. Domestically, for example, he rebuffs attempts by the Jerusalem municipality to improve living conditions for Palestinians in the eastern part of the united city. Internationally, he continues to pursue a strategy of gaining unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state with or without the Israelis.
But that is not leadership, and Abbas is not really the leader of the Palestinians anymore. That, perhaps, is the gravest crisis they face. Abbas has become a classic Arab gerontocrat, an old man clinging onto power through corruption and bullying, and with no obvious successor in the wings. Indeed, as the Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea explained in a recent Yediot Ahronoth article, it’s quite possible that the succession battle that will follow the departure of Abbas could result in a civil war—for the second time, in fact, when you remember the bloody conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza in 2007.
As any revolutionary worth his or her salt will tell you, without proper leadership you can’t win. It was the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin who came up with the widely adopted concept of the “vanguard party:” in essence, a cadre of professional revolutionaries who will guide, shape, and direct the struggle of the working class and the oppressed. Right now, Hamas looks a much more credible candidate for that position than does Fatah.
Israel is capable, in military terms, of containing a Hamas-led intifada in the West Bank, which is arguably the worst scenario that could emerge from the present situation. It will be an ugly conflict that could well see the introduction of Islamic State terrorists into the equation. But the continuing brutal wars in Syria and Iraq, now under the joint control of Moscow and Tehran, will limit, in practical terms, any assistance for a renewed Palestinian front in the Islamist war against Israel and the West.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned American policy once in this discussion. That’s because, tragically, the U.S. has become a virtual irrelevance in the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s attempt to achieve a peace settlement was derailed by Abbas’s duplicity and by Obama’s own antagonism towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since then, American policy in the wider region has only served to strengthen Israel’s mortal enemy, Iran. Israel is now living with the consequences of America’s retreat from the Middle East, which means it has to worry about far greater problems than the occasional rap over the knuckles from a disengaged White House.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).
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