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Does Israel really need Abbas to condemn terror acts?

While it is indeed appropriate to expect President Mahmoud Abbas to condemn recent terror acts against Israelis as a humanitarian gesture, Israel’s expectations show that we have our priorities all wrong.

Israel was shrouded in deep mourning over the two double murders perpetrated on the Sukkot holiday, in which four Israeli lives were lost. The political echelon was furious and no conclusive steps to calm the violent winds were to be found, not on the right nor on the left. It is interesting how, in this explosive tension, many people are busy asking a question that promises neither peace nor security: Why doesn’t President Mahmoud Abbas condemn the attacks?

True, it is indeed appropriate to expect the No. 1 man in Ramallah to condemn the two recent terror acts as a humanitarian gesture. However, Israel’s desperate expectations that Abbas will express his sorrow, that he distances himself from such acts or condemns them — all this shows that we have our priorities wrong, while our dead still lie before us. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went through the trouble of protesting the thunderous silence in Ramallah. “How can you move forward to peace if you don't fight terror, if you don't renounce terror?” Netanyahu said in an interview Oct. 2 with Fox News, in between the two terror attacks.

Although the silence by Abbas is hard on Israelis, it is not surprising. At least, not this time. Abbas feels that his stance vis-a-vis violence is well known, apparently especially against harsh murderous attacks of the type that took place last week in Jerusalem. He does not feel himself compelled to repeat it automatically after Israelis are murdered, so long as Israel does not express sorrow — certainly not condemnation — over the death of young Palestinians from the bullets of Israel’s soldiers. The way the Palestinian Authority (PA) sees it, not all the young people killed by Israeli fire are murderers or stabbers who wanted to die while taking the lives of settlers or soldiers with them. Some were protesters who did not really threaten soldiers’ lives when they were shot, others died from stray bullets. Sometimes the Israeli triggers that were pulled causing their deaths were not needed.

The Palestinian president has openly expressed his position against violence for many years; in Arabic, English and at almost every possible forum. Abbas' position has a good track record, as any Shin Bet or Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operative in the field can testify to. Abbas explains this position in simple words. He feels that when it comes to violent confrontation, Israel has the upper hand. They have the power to bring destruction on us, he says, so we have to achieve our victories in legal and diplomatic arenas. Thus, it is in this spirit that Abbas instructs his security apparatus to cooperate with the Shin Bet to thwart terror attacks and pursue fugitives. Although squeaks sometimes appear in this collaborative venture, it is still unique in the history of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

For this stance, and the heavy hand wielded by the PA against violence directed at Israelis, Abbas pays a heavy political price. Only a few days before the murderous attacks against Israelis, a video clip went viral on the Internet showing PA security men beating up a young man in Bethlehem who participated in a demonstration against IDF soldiers. For Abbas’ opponents in Hamas, this was great fuel for the fire campaign they are waging against him, under the pretext that he is an Israeli collaborator. But the real surprise came from within: PLO Executive Committee member Tayseer Khaled called the security men in the clip “a Gestapo gang.”

To all this, we must add the suffocating political atmosphere that now prevails in the PA’s territory. Abbas is pushed against the wall by an angry public and politicians who demand that he extract a price from the Israelis and cut off security arrangements with them, or declare that the Oslo Accord is null and void. These demands make it difficult for Abbas to express the kind of empathy for Israeli pain that he had been able to express in the past. The demands directed at Abbas gathered strength in recent weeks — weeks in which violent confrontations took place on the Temple Mount. Now, even Fatah members have joined the firing line. The riots take place on already muddied foundations: a year of disappointment in Israel-PA relations in which peace talks collapsed, a war broke out in Gaza and two crimes took place that shook Palestinians and Israelis alike: the burning to death of Jerusalemite Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2, 2014, and the setting on fire of the Dawabsheh family on July 31, 2015.

Until recently, the head of the PA would issue immediate condemnations for incidents of murder of Israelis under similar circumstances. After the abduction of the three Israeli youths in the Etzion settlement bloc on June 12, 2014, Abbas did what no Arab leader had ever done before when tragedy befell Israel. He called the three missing youths “human beings” who must be returned to their worried families and accused the Palestinian abductors of committing a crime. Later on, one of the IDF General Staff's generals admitted in a meeting with journalists that when he had heard Abbas’ remarks on the kidnapping, he had been filled with astonishment and anxiety lest Abbas’ stable reputation on the Palestinian street be undermined. “I was afraid that he’d be viewed as a collaborator,” the general said on condition of anonymity.

The recent acts of murder committed against Israelis were initiated by lone-wolf attackers or organizations that derive their power and inspiration from the explosive atmosphere in the political arena. Israel must take this volatile atmosphere into account, especially under circumstances in which Israel hardens its hand against the Palestinians, and the Palestinian field leaders take the initiative while their leadership shows understanding for Israeli pain. In such a scenario — when the street wants to act — Abbas is likely to become "irrelevant" in the eyes of the Palestinian street. This is one of his worries these days, and this is what caused him to delay a condemnation.

“Abbas may be sitting on the fence, but the Palestinian security apparatus is in full security cooperation with us — I know this to be a fact,” said Gen. (Res.) Avi Mizrachi, former head of Israeli Central Command in an interview with Army Radio after the two double murders. He added, “Their contribution is not marginal; it is appropriate that it continue for them as well. There is no way to guarantee safety 100% even if you close all the roads and erect 100 checkpoints.”

Israel must stop begging the Palestinians to condemn terror acts. It has no real need for it, and it is below Israel’s dignity to act this way. The premeditated murder of a human being is an abominable crime, and does not need to be denounced by someone who does not want to do so. Furthermore, any past condemnations from the Palestinian leadership did not change the situation significantly, beyond awarding Jerusalem a momentary sense of victory.

Instead of insisting on condemnations from the Palestinians, it is better to do everything to preserve the most important asset of all — Palestinian assistance in thwarting future acts of murder.

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