Where are Israeli-Palestinian security talks headed?

Discreet talks between Israeli and Palestinian security officers, aimed at reaching new understandings regarding Israel’s military activity in Palestinian cities, lead nowhere for the moment.

al-monitor Israeli security forces gather near the scene of what the Israeli military said were back-to-back gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians, near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near the West Bank city of Hebron, March 14, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma.
Uri Savir

Uri Savir

@Uri_Savir

Topics covered

west bank, two-state solution, security, palestinian-israeli conflict, mahmoud abbas, israeli-palestinian negotiations, israel defense forces, benjamin netanyahu

Mar 27, 2016

Secret talks between senior Israeli and Palestinian security officers on new security arrangements for the West Bank were reportedly held in recent weeks. After almost six months of random individual terror attacks on Israelis, West Bank Palestinians are coming to the conclusion that this round of violence — defined by some as a third intifada — is not producing any political benefit nor is it affecting Israeli public opinion or provoking an awakening of the international community.

In a recent public opinion poll published on March 14 by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, 41% of Palestinians oppose continuation of the violent uprising against Israel. Among the opposing voices, 51.6% are from the West Bank. This has led, according to this poll, to a moderation in Palestinian public opinion: Support for Fatah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is 35.5% as opposed to only 16.5% who support Hamas. Of those participating in the poll, 82% oppose the Islamic State. Most importantly, 69% of those responding support a two-state solution against only 24.8% who support a binational state. Surprisingly perhaps, 52.7% of the Palestinians favor security cooperation with Israel.

These trends have not gone unnoticed by the leaders of Israel’s security establishment. According to a senior Palestinian security official close to President Mahmoud Abbas, the discreet talks by officers of both sides are aimed at reaching new understandings regarding Israel’s military activity in Palestinian cities in Area A.

According to the Oslo Accord, the Palestinian Authority has full security and civilian jurisdiction over all Palestinian West Bank cities. Ever since Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, Israel has decided, unilaterally, to allow its army to enter Palestinian cities for the arrest of suspected terrorists and inciters, despite Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. Palestinians view this as an abolition of the Oslo Accord and a deepening of the occupation.

The senior Palestinian security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that in these talks their side insisted on reinstating the situation on the ground precisely according to the Oslo Accord (pre-March 2002 status) in one move that would include all Palestinian cities — as a condition for continued security cooperation with Israel.

The Israeli side, he said, insists that in instances of imminent danger alerts, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would still be able to enter Palestinian cities. Furthermore, the Israeli generals suggested that this arrangement be carried out in Ramallah and Jericho first and then extend to other cities based on successful implementation of this pilot stage. The Palestinians rejected what they consider to be a staged and partial offer that would legitimate Israeli intrusion into the other Palestinian cities.

The issue now rests with both political leaderships. According to a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the prime minister and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon gave a green light to this exploration between security officials and also shared this with US Vice President Joe Biden during his March 8 visit to Jerusalem.

It is convenient for Netanyahu to stay behind the scenes of this initiative in order to keep deniability vis-a-vis his right-wing ministers. According to this Netanyahu adviser, who is also periodically involved in talks with the Palestinians, the initiative for these proposals came from the security establishment — both the IDF and the Shin Bet. They are extremely concerned with a possible deterioration of the current violence into a full-fledged armed intifada. They see, as also indicated in recent Palestinian polls, a public disillusionment with the current sporadic violence and believe that now is the opportune time for such an initiative. They also favor the creation of a Palestinian harbor in Gaza with outside Israeli security control for incoming shipments — something Netanyahu objects to.

They, unlike the political level, give Abbas credit for his stand against violence and for the security cooperation with Israel. The higher echelons of the security establishment favor a political process, but understand that it cannot happen now in view of the current government composition. The move out of the Palestinian cities — although only a restoration of previous agreements — is something they believe would ameliorate the lives of Palestinians, alongside economic measures.

There is a mirror image on the Palestinian security side to these Israeli assessments, with a skeptical political level that is hesitant to consider a partial agreement with Israel without a viable two-state solution.

According to the senior Palestinian security official, their security establishment favors a comprehensive deal on reinstating full Palestinian security jurisdiction in the West Bank cities, as it is their duty to stabilize the internal situation vis-a-vis radical groups, primarily Hamas.

Talking to both sides, one can conclude that even these very limited proposals have little chance to materialize. The Palestinian side is very suspicious that any such security arrangement would not be implemented by Israel. According to the Palestinian security official, “Israel feels and acts as the ‘master’ of the West Bank and is not capable of real security cooperation beyond giving us instructions.” On the Israeli side, the security establishment has a more pragmatic understanding of the need to meet minimal Palestinian needs. The political level, and especially the prime minister, wants these explorations in order to stall international initiatives for the renewal of a negotiation process until after the American elections. Nothing will be done that could endanger Netanyahu's unholy alliance with the HaBayit HaYehudi party and the settlers.

Therefore, one must take reports about secret security talks and so-called generous security proposals with a grain of salt.

The only way for Israel to stop the current wave of violence is to engage in a realistic and viable two-state solution process. Anything else is too little, too late.

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