It could happen tomorrow morning, or in a year or two — but no longer than that, warns Immigration Minister Zeev Elkin somberly. With 80-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stubbornly opposed to grooming a successor, the PA will collapse, Elkin predicts, and Israel must be ready — both for the ensuing security challenges and for the opportunity to revamp the Palestinian education system and crack down, once and for all, on incitement.
Speaking to The Times of Israel at his office on Sunday, Elkin preempted the speech he delivered at Bar-Ilan University on Monday in which he reiterated his warnings that the PA’s days are numbered and that Israel and the world are woefully unprepared, and also elaborated on what he thinks is the root of the current terror wave in Israel. Unlike his party’s leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Elkin concedes that Palestinian frustration is driving the violence, but contends that the despair is truly directed at the Palestinian leadership, which in turn channels that rage against Israel to safeguard its own standing.
The Ukraine-born minister — who sits on the security cabinet, Netanyahu’s inner policy-making circle — speaks gravely but nearly monotonously, of a fractured Palestinian leadership and what he argues is its Arab Spring-like effect on Palestinian youth, driving them out of their homes to stab, shoot, or ram their cars into Israelis. But he also doesn’t spare Israel criticism for taking a step back and allowing what he describes as anti-Semitic hatred to fester in the West Bank for two decades.
His comments, perhaps, should be viewed through the prism of his longstanding support for West Bank annexation. Fences can only help so much, he notes at one point, but the deeper issues have been long neglected.
During the interview, Elkin sounds the death knell for the Oslo Accords (this time for real, he says), and maintains that while security cooperation with the Palestinians is “good,” it helps the PA more than it helps Israel. Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti — a convicted terrorist mastermind — is the only Palestinian figure popular enough to succeed Abbas, but releasing him to save the PA would be a “very big mistake,” he cautions.
Throughout, he dismisses the debate over which outcome is “good for Israel or bad for Israel.” The real question, he says, is, when the PA falls apart, what is Israel — and the international community — going to do?
Following is a condensed version of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Tomorrow you are set to give a speech at Bar-Ilan University on the period following Palestinian Authority.
Zeev Elkin: The argument in my speech at Bar-Ilan is that we are headed toward “the day after.” We’ve grown used to the existing order, which has been around for over 20 years, since the Oslo Accords and the agreements to create the Palestinian Authority. And we aren’t aware enough that — this is a personal opinion, this isn’t the cabinet’s position or that of the prime minister – in my assessment, in nearly all the scenarios, the Palestinian Authority likely won’t survive Abu Mazen’s [Abbas’s] departure, and this forces us to prepare for an entirely different way of life, with regard to everything that happens in Judea and Samaria at least.
It can happen quickly. For a number of reasons, a few months ago, Abu Mazen threatened to quit, to vacate his position, and this contributed, among other things, to instability in the PA, the moment it realized that this threat, in practice, could cut his and the PA’s days short. So he changed his policy. He doesn’t use this threat, but the process of disintegration has already started, and he can’t stop it. But even if it doesn’t happen because of the resignation of Abu Mazen – and I don’t think that will happen – it can happen from a number of other reasons. Abu Mazen’s standing is poor in the public opinion today… he’s also not the youngest man, or the healthiest. It could happen one day — we’ll wake up and be in a post-Abu Mazen era. Or it could take time: a year, two, I don’t believe more than that.
Why don’t you think there will a successor?
I try to look at the Palestinian Authority. For there to be a successor in an entity like this, you need one of two things, but ideally both: a clear candidate, and a clear process to appoint the successor. In the State of Israel, there are elections, there is a clear process, there are elections within parties. In most democratic states, it’s this way. The Palestinian Authority is not a democratic entity. And when you try to analyze the various roles, you see that there’s a problem: The most important role is that of president of the PA… it’s an elected position. Abu Mazen, today, is unlawfully the head of the PA. He hasn’t held elections for many years. If he was in any other country, we wouldn’t recognize such a leader as legitimate. It’s no coincidence that he doesn’t hold elections; he knows that he will lose. And if he loses, what are the chances that his successor in Fatah will win them? Even less likely.
Therefore, I assume that the Fatah leadership will find it difficult to make a decision to hold elections… And there is no charismatic leader on the horizon who can win elections, except for maybe one: Marwan Barghouti. But all the other Fatah leaders are not viewed as leaders who can win an election.
Abu Mazen has three roles – the head of Fatah, the head of the PLO, and the head of the PA. In Fatah and the PLO, there are procedures to name a successor, but they don’t necessarily have any bearing on the PA [leadership]. Moreover, in Fatah and the PLO, it would be difficult for Barghouti to lead, because he’s popular among the public, but I’m not sure he has enough power in the halls of government.
In the PLO, for example, the successor to Abu Mazen is Saeb Erekat, at least temporarily. But even he doesn’t view himself as a leader. He already declared that he would support Barghouti on “the day after.”
Would Israel consider releasing Barghouti from prison to save the PA?
I think the Israeli position, at least for now, is clear. Barghouti is sitting in jail. Barghouti is known for leading the Al-Aqsa Intifada [Second Intifada], during the period of the Oslo Accords, and organized a large number of terror attacks against Israel. And by the way, he never expressed regret for it. Which is one of the reasons for his popularity. Even today, I don’t think he’s ruled out the possibility of returning to terror, and therefore I don’t think Israel has an interest in Barghouti leading the PA.
Also, among all the Fatah leaders, he might be the closest to Hamas. So I personally think that allowing him to control the PA would be a very big mistake… I’m also not sure he is capable. His popularity doesn’t mean he has a handle on the security services or within the internal politics of Fatah. He has supporters there, for example Erekat, but there are other groups.
Elkin also argues that the demographic changes that prompted the Arab Spring are true of the Palestinians as well, naming as factors the large population of young people, poor economic or social prospects, and lack of “willingness to accept the old order.”
The Palestinians are no different in this sense. And sooner or later, it was meant to come to us. They are also looking around. They also see that it doesn’t always end in something good; therefore the masses aren’t yet joining in. But among the young people, we see it.
To some degree, the terror wave by young people against us – the real target is the Palestinian Authority. We are saving the Palestinian Authority. They come, out of feelings of anger and frustration, to this situation as a result of propaganda… if it happened in Syria or Egypt, they would come out against their leadership. Here, they have Israel to oppose. And this is what is saving Abu Mazen, despite his unpopularity — the fact that the outburst, the frustration, the rage is aimed at us, not at him…. This also explains why the PA doesn’t come out explicitly against the incitement or the terror, but rather plays a two-faced game – on the one hand, it doesn’t really support the terror, on the other hand, in its rhetoric, it often inflames the atmosphere, because it’s convenient for all the frustration and rage to be focused on Israel.
So how must Israel prepare for the post-PA era?
I think Israel needs to be prepared – even those who believe it’s good for us – for the question of what happens if it falls apart. The challenges are very difficult. Both internal: of security, because if there is anarchy… it will also be expressed in violence against us. There are a lot of people [in the West Bank] with weapons; these weapons will be aimed at us. Today, the vast majority of these weapons have not yet been turned on us. It’s under Fatah’s control, and the [Palestinian security forces]… The people under the greatest threat are the settlers. And the reality requires security preparations for that day.
It also requires us to study the map of internal Palestinian powers far more in depth. We’ve grown accustomed to deal with a hierarchical system…. We may be quickly heading to a situation in which there will be a lot of players… We may be able to identify players beforehand, and develop quiet ties with them… If we can identify, in advance, people who are less convenient for us or the opposite… without making [public] statements… working quietly with them, we can influence the situation.
Elkin maintains that the international community has not seriously considered the possibility of the PA’s demise, but has merely focused on how to strengthen it.
If there was a fair chance that it could really be revived, then we need to weigh and seriously debate whether the cost is worth it — what the cost or the damage is if there is no PA. But I’m saying that this is an illusion; it’s an artificial revival for another short period, and another short period, and in the end it will all fall apart, and therefore… the international community… needs to ask itself, not whether it’s good or bad, but what should be done if there is no PA in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].
On the death of Oslo, and Abbas’ role:
Arafat had Abu Mazen. He was traditionally the number two in the PA during Arafat’s term. He was also formally the prime minister for a fairly long time… Therefore his transition as a successor went fairly smoothly.
[Abbas, the driving force behind the Oslo agreements, is the] man who, for technical reasons, was not given the Nobel Peace Prize for the Oslo Accords. [He is] the Shimon Peres and the [Yossi] Beilin of this process.
And perhaps he deserved this prize, if you think that Oslo warranted a Peace Prize. I’m not sure. For those who believe that it was warranted, perhaps he deserved it more than the other three who did receive it. Therefore he was a natural successor. But he is not leaving himself a natural successor – the opposite, he’s doing everything to [prevent a successor].
We need to internalize the new situation we’re in. The Oslo era is coming to an end. Oslo has been declared dead many times already; it’s dead in terms of the process, but it’s not dead in terms of its results. The Palestinian Authority has been around for over 20 years. And I think we’re nearing the real death of the Oslo agreements, with the collapse of the PA. It’s very symbolic that it all came into being through Abu Mazen and is departing with Abu Mazen.
[The PA was created by] Rabin, who is no longer with us. Arafat, who is no longer with us. Peres, who is still with us, but is no longer in politics and finished his political career. And Abu Mazen, who in one way or another, is on his way out. And what they built, the PA and the Oslo agreements, likely won’t outlast their generation.
How essential is Israel’s security cooperation with the Palestinians?
Today, we have good cooperation. It helps us. It helps them more than it helps us, because without it, they wouldn’t be in power, and what happened in Gaza [where Hamas ousted the PA from power in a violent coup in 2007] would have happened to them. Thus, when they threaten to end the security cooperation, it’s often an empty threat because their interest in it is no less than ours. But at the end of the day, the people doing 80 percent of the work in terms of thwarting terror in all areas of Judea and Samaria, including Areas A and B [where the PA maintains administrative control], are the IDF, the Shin Bet [security service], and our security forces.
[Despite the cooperation on security] we don’t intervene in education, we don’t intervene in the incitement in their media — we just talk about it now and then. We don’t intervene in the incitement in the mosques. The result is that a new generation rose that was educated with a burning hatred of Israel, of Jews, that didn’t exist on this level before the PA was founded. During the period of civil administration, when we controlled the area, there were efforts like these, but they were much more cautious. Because of our intervention, they were afraid to do it so openly.
We handed this over to the Palestinian Authority, believing that it would educate the next generation about coexistence with Israel – that was the idea, of partnership and separation. In practice, they educated this generation in immense hatred against Israel. You see it from the children’s programs [on TV] and more significantly, the curricula and the mosques. We deal a lot with the Palestinian media, but the effects of the sermons in the mosques is several times more [influential] than the Palestinian media –- everyone goes to the sermons, everyone goes to pray on Fridays. And when you read the texts, they are shocking; they’re not only anti-Israeli texts, they’re anti-Semitic to an insane degree… Even the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” didn’t think to blame the Jews for the bizarre things they accuse the Jews of.
As soon as we give up [this control over education and media], this is the result. And then we’re surprised when a 13-year-old girl grabs a knife and goes out to murder an Israeli on the street. But this is how they educated her.
Do you see Israel meddling in Palestinian education over the next few years?
I don’t think we have a choice. In the internet era, people understand that terror is often not the product of an organization… A few young people can arrange it one morning, on the way to school, or on the way to university… and they can’t be caught, because they aren’t terror organizations; there is no infrastructure.
Therefore, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority on the one hand presents very difficult challenges – in terms of security, internationally, in terms of preparing for civil control – but on the other hand, it’s also an opportunity: to finally intervene in areas that shape the consciousness of an entire generation of Palestinians, which later erupts against us.
To think that you can build a big fence and entirely ignore what is happening in the minds of the Palestinians, to let them live with a burning hatred of us but think they can’t do anything about it, is a mistake. It didn’t work in Gaza, and it didn’t work anywhere else. A fence can contribute to security, but it can’t solve all problems. And therefore, if we want to deal with the terror wave today, we have to deal with it, not only with Tylenol – such as certain security measures – but with antibiotics.
The antibiotic for it is involvement in what is happening in the educational system, in the mosques, in the media incitement. It’s far more difficult. It’s a lot of work to gather information, to decide how to intervene… but we have been known to do complicated things, as soon as we decide that it’s important.
I think we haven’t yet reached the stage of internalizing (a) that it’s important; (b) that we have no choice; (c) that the Palestinian Authority is not doing it for us, just as it isn’t dealing 100% with terror; (d) that it has the opposite interest, because in this way it directs the anger, disappointment at us, instead of it being turned on them, as leaders of the Palestinians; and (e) most significantly… the Palestinian Authority may soon not exist and therefore we have no choice but to prepare for the security repercussions, as well as for the question of how we deal with the real causes of this terror wave.