Why Netanyahu thinks blaming Abbas is vital for peace
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Why Netanyahu thinks blaming Abbas is vital for peace

Tuesday’s attack originated not in the terrorists’ fevered imagination, the PM insists, but in the mainstream Palestinian insistence that Jewish independence here is illegitimate. And that has to change

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A congregant at the Har Nof synagogue where five people were killed by Palestinian terrorists examines a bullet hole. November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
A congregant at the Har Nof synagogue where five people were killed by Palestinian terrorists examines a bullet hole. November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

After two Palestinian men murdered five and injured eight others in a brutal terror attack at a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday, Israeli leaders did not search very far or very long for an overall culprit.

“This is the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement which the international community is irresponsibly ignoring,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a statement soon after the attack.

By placing “Abu Mazen,” the nom de guerre of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the same sentence as Hamas, Netanyahu’s accusation went beyond merely warning about Palestinian incitement. Like Hamas, the prime minister seemed to say, Abbas is no partner for peace talks.

Much of Netanyahu’s government agrees. According to a statement issued by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, “the responsibility [for Tuesday’s attack] rests entirely with the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has deliberately turned the conflict into a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews, including his statement that impure Jews may not enter the Temple Mount, provides the guidance for such heinous attacks.”

Both Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on Netanyahu’s right, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid on his left, have publicly supported the prime minister’s accusations against Abbas.

And this Israeli insistence on Abbas’s culpability seems to be having an effect farther afield. In his own condemnation of Tuesday’s attack, US Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to accept the Israeli view.

“To have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement, of calls for ‘days of rage,’ of just irresponsibility, is unacceptable,” Kerry declared from London. It is Abbas’s Fatah faction that has called for “days or rage” recently to “protect” the Al-Aqsa Mosque. “The Palestinian leadership must condemn this and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement. Innocent people who had come to worship died in the sanctuary of a synagogue. They were hatcheted, hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terror and senseless brutality and murder. I call on Palestinians at every single level of leadership to condemn this in the most powerful terms… and take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the latter's residence in Amman on November 13, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/Nicholas Kamm)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the latter’s residence in Amman on November 13, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/Nicholas Kamm)

The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was even more explicit.

“While terrorist organizations like Hamas, true to form, are already praising these murders, anyone else who places a claim to responsible leadership must clearly condemn this outrage and any acts of incitement that can inspire events like these,” he said in a statement.

And, by Wednesday, Netanyahu’s accusations began to resonate in places the prime minister himself usually considers enemy territory, such as the editorial page of The New York Times.

“The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had to be pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry into speaking out,” lamented the influential American newspaper’s Wednesday editorial. “’We condemn the killings of worshipers at the synagogue in Jerusalem and condemn acts of violence no matter their source,’ Mr. Abbas said in a statement. That was apparently the first time he had denounced Palestinian attacks in recent days….As a political leader, Mr. Abbas has a duty to make the moral case that such brutality and inhumanity can only bring shame upon the Palestinian people,” the Times concluded.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is unclear if either Kerry or the Times were convinced by Netanyahu’s finger-pointing, or were acting out of simple shock at the grisly meat-cleaver murder of rabbis at prayer. Either way, these statements are an achievement of sorts for Netanyahu.

But this very success raises a critical question: What does Netanyahu hope to accomplish? Does he hope the international community will now write off the Palestinian leader as an incorrigible extremist? For many diplomats and world leaders, Abbas remains the best and perhaps only chance for a negotiated peace. Lacking a better alternative, they are unlikely to ever give up on him.

As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hurriedly explained in the aftermath of the Tuesday attack, the violence only strengthens the international eagerness for a Netanyahu-Abbas diplomatic process.

“The lack of progress towards the two-State solution will systematically ensure the next round of violence,” she said in a statement. “The time has come for both sides to make compromises…”

So is Netanyahu then hoping to convince his fellow Israelis there is no partner for peace? Many, perhaps even most Israelis hardly need to be convinced, if hundreds of polls on the public’s views about Palestinian intentions are to be believed.

The question is sharpened by the apparent disagreement Tuesday between the prime minister and the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service Yoram Cohen on the question of Abbas’s culpability.

“Abu Mazen isn’t interested in terror and isn’t pushing for terror, not even under the table,” Cohen told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a comment that nearly all Israeli media interpreted as a direct rebuttal to Netanyahu’s accusations.

Yoram Cohen, chief of the Shin Bet general security services, attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense committee meeting in the Israeli parliament. November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Yoram Cohen, chief of the Shin Bet general security services, attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense committee meeting in the Israeli parliament. November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The media frenzy that surrounded the seeming clash between the prime minister and his Shin Bet chief highlighted the political significance of Netanyahu’s claim against Abbas. For the right, the argument that Abbas is inciting terror proves that peace talks are impossible. For the left, the intelligence chief’s assessment that Abbas is not in favor of terror attacks proves that peace talks remain a moral and viable imperative, and that Israel’s right-wing government is at least as responsible for their failure as the Palestinians. As the left-wing Haaretz daily argued in its Wednesday editorial, the “real motivation” behind Netanyahu’s accusations is “to deepen the fracture with the Palestinians, and torpedo any possibility of a future agreement.”

Yet the press coverage of Cohen’s remarks, like the political responses to Netanyahu’s accusations, tell only half the story.

While Cohen did indeed tell lawmakers that Abbas was not seeking violence, he also said “the recent incitement by Palestinian Authority leaders, led by Abu Mazen, on issues connected with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, contribute to and affect the high level of violence in the field, especially in Jerusalem.” And he added: “There are people in the Palestinian public who understand [Abbas’s] criticism [of Israel] as legitimating attacks.”

When asked about Cohen’s comments in a Tuesday evening press conference, Netanyahu insisted that everything Cohen had told the Knesset committee was “correct,” and that there was no disagreement between him and Cohen on the question of Abbas’s culpability.

So while the media reveled in the spectacle of the supposed personality clash, the Israeli prime minister’s more serious argument was lost: that mainstream Palestinian incitement, and not just the terror planners themselves, are culpable in the violence.

The elements of Palestinian politics that still answer to Abbas did not plan or launch the latest terror attacks. On that there is almost unanimous agreement among Israel’s political and security leaders. But both Cohen and Netanyahu — and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Finance Minister Lapid, and many Israelis farther left from them — also agree that the PA, and Abbas personally, constantly and vociferously incite against Israelis and Jews.

And that incitement matters, Netanyahu said Tuesday.

“The human animals who perpetrated this slaughter were full of hatred and incitement, deep hatred and terrible incitement against the Jewish People and its state,” Netanyahu told reporters gathered at the Prime Minister’s Office. “Hamas, the Islamic Movement and the Palestinian Authority are disseminating countless lies and falsehoods against the State of Israel. They are saying that the Jews are contaminating the Temple Mount. They are saying that we are planning to destroy the holy places, that we intend to change the order of prayer there – this is all lies.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses supporters during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, at the his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses supporters during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death, at the his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Netanyahu acknowledged that “this time Abu Mazen condemned the slaughter and it is good that he did. I remember that he also condemned the murder of the three youths [in June].”

But, the prime minister continued, “it is not enough, because in the same sentence in which he condemned today’s slaughter, he linked it to imaginary actions, which have no basis in reality, that Israel is purportedly planning to carry out on the Temple Mount. There is daily, even hourly, incitement on the streets of the Palestinian Authority. There, not only do the most reprehensible murderers become the heroes of Palestinian culture, but there is unending, constant incitement against the very existence of the State of Israel, against the security of Israel’s citizens, in schools, the media, mosques, everywhere, and this is the root of the conflict: the refusal to recognize – and educate for – the existence of the state of the Jews.”

The last sentence is a significant one. For Netanyahu, the accusations against Abbas have more to do with the failure of peace talks than with the recent terror attacks. In the prime minister’s view, Abbas’s culpability for Tuesday’s murderous rampage lies not in any direct role, but in Abbas’s perpetuation of the underlying narrative of the Palestinian national movement that views Jewish independence in this land as innately and irredeemably illegitimate.

Or, as Netanyahu put it, “There are those who would like to uproot us from our land and from our capital. They will not achieve their aim.”

A cartoon posted on the Facebook page of Hamas MP Mushir Al-Masri has perpetrators of the Jerusalem attack dressed in religious Jewish garb asking 'where are they?' (photo credit: Facebook)
A cartoon posted on the Facebook page of Hamas MP Mushir Al-Masri has perpetrators of the Jerusalem attack dressed in religious Jewish garb asking ‘where are they?’ (photo credit: Facebook)

As she called for renewed talks, the EU’s Mogherini warned that “the absence of a credible political framework is used instrumentally and leads to further hardening of ideological and religious stands.”

Netanyahu’s reply: “The world sees this slaughter but, to our regret, does not demand that the Palestinians stop the wild incitement against Israel that is the root of the conflict.” The Palestinian position, he was saying, is already hardened and uncompromising, and the world refuses to address it: “To my regret, there are those who currently insist on giving the Palestinians a prize in the form of unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state that does not recognize the state of the Jews.”

For Netanyahu, all Palestinian violence, whether Abbas is directly initiating it or not, is ultimately rooted in the universal rejection of Israel’s legitimacy by all parts of Palestinian politics.

This may not sound like an optimistic assessment of the prospects for peace on Netanyahu’s part. But there is a sliver of good news here for those hoping to see renewed and more successful talks. Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech was couched as a declaration of resolve in the face of terror, yet carefully avoided announcing any Israeli escalation beyond the promise to demolish a handful of deceased terrorists’ homes. And even as he professed to be talking about his steadfast commitment to pursuing Israel’s enemies, Netanyahu actually talked about Israeli frustration at Palestinian intransigence, and demanded compromise and moderation from his Palestinian adversary.

What, then, does Netanyahu hope to accomplish? He hopes, eventually, to convince the Palestinians, and along the way also the international community, that there can be no peace without reconciliation, and no reconciliation without legitimation. There can be no peace, in other words, unless the Palestinian state-to-be can “recognize – and educate for – the existence of the state of the Jews.”

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